So, itíll be the Angels then.
Yeah, yeah, it remains just a two-game deficit with 10 games on the schedule, but seeing as the Red Sox have only even sniffed first place in the AL East for a scant 24 hours since the end of June, it's safe to assume the Red Sox are wild card ďchampsĒ for the fourth time in six years.
Itís not like they didnít have the prime opportunity to open the ALDS at home vs. what is increasingly looking like would have been the White Sox. Youíd figure six head-to-head showdowns with Tampa Bay would have given them the fortitude to go out and deliver the message. ďNot yet, juniors. Itís still our division.Ē
Instead, the Red Sox gagged the opportunity away, dropping four of six to the Rays, who, remember, were supposed to have fallen off the board by now based on their difficult September schedule. In fact, the Rays are just 6-8 this month, and have struggled to keep the rhythm that has carried them this season.
Except against Boston.
The worst part about all this is that, should there be a Red Sox-Rays ALCS (and based on the nailbiters between the two this season, not to mention the antagonism, it would no doubt be a fascinating series) Tampa Bay will have the home-field advantage, which means the possibility of four games being played in a ballpark with Wiffleball rules. Thatís nine more innings for something to go wrong at the pinball Trop. Can you imagine the outrage should the AL pennant should come down to the bottom of the ninth, and Carlos Pena hits a shot off the catwalk to win the title for Tampa Bay? The repercussions would be so unending that itís best just not to think about it.
Anyway, it will be the Angels in just about a fortnight from now, obviously not the matchup Red Sox fans wanted. The Sox are just 1-8 this season against the Angels, a regular-season mark that will have little to do with anything come October, but itís all we have to work with right now. In fact, as encouraging as Josh Beckettís performance was on Tuesday night, howís this for popping the bubble: Since the All-Star break, Boston is just 6-13 vs. the three teams likely to accompany it to the postseason dance (0-6 vs. the Angels, 2-4 vs. the Rays, and 4-3 vs. the White Sox).
Last season, the Sox were 9-3 against the Angels, and 9-4 vs. the Indians in the regular season, beating both en route to the World Series. For whatever itís worth.
Boston is also 3-0 all-time vs. the Angels in postseason play, including a nine-game winning streak. So, thereís that.
Itís also safe to consider that 1-8 mark somewhat deceiving. After all, the Red Sox of the post Manuel Ramirez era are a decidedly different team than the one that was bound for a plodding quest for identity. The last time they faced off, in fact, was in the final days of Mannyís staged ultimatum. Boston is 28-15 since then, the second-best record in the game since the trading deadline.
The best mark belongs to the Houston Astros, whose 30-14 record since July 31 most likely wonít be good enough to make it. (Thank Ike and Bud for that.)
That means, by skill of deduction, the Red Sox could head into October with the best final-third mark of the season among all playoff teams. And what have we learned? All together, now:
The first-third of a baseball season is about surveying what you have.
The second-third is about fixing your shortcomings.
The final third is about watching your team hit, pitch, and field its way to the playoffs.
Nobody else headed to the playoffs has done the last part (maybe even the first two parts) better than Theo Epsteinís Red Sox.
Thatís the good news. The bad is that a cross-country trip beckons for the first round, a shortcoming that didnít affect Boston too much in 2004, but not exactly the preferred avenue either. The worse news is that should Tampa Bay handle the White Sox, the ALCS will open at Tropicana Field, where Boston is, coincidentally, 1-8 this season, the same as its season mark against the Angels.
The Rays can clinch a playoff spot as soon as tomorrow night, their magic number down to two (It stands at 10 for the division). Bostonís playoff magic numeral is just four, which means by the end of this weekend, they can start to make playoff plans, juggling their rotation and telling Tim Wakefield and Paul Byrd that, at this point, they've just decided to flip a coin.
Maybe theyíll get amorous and make a last-week push for the division, but really, should they? Did we learn nothing in 2005, when Matt Clement, David Wells, and Wakefield took the mound, and Curt Schilling was merely a bystander in a three-game sweep at the hands of Chicago?
Would you rather have the wild card and open up in Anaheim with Beckett and Jon Lester on the hill, or the AL East title with Byrd pitching Game 1 at Fenway? Stay the course with eyes on the division, and Beckett likely wouldnít pitch until Game 3.
Nothing wrong with the wild card, even if it is the Angels in lieu of the White Sox. And while I can imagine nothing more intriguing and captivating than a Red Sox-Rays ALCS, the mere presence of that blunder of a ballpark in a series of that magnitude should put everyone with any relevant interest on notice that something is going to happen.
But hey, the Red Sox had their chance to ensure that at least one fewer game is played there. For now, itís Chicagoís problem. It should be entertaining to watch Ozzie Guillen react once he realizes Penaís shot is still sitting up in the air somewhere, resting on a catwalk that you just know will come into play at least once come next month.