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Division problems

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff September 22, 2009 09:05 AM

Had the Red Sox not managed to suffer their ugliest loss of the season – yes, worse than the 10-0 comeback debacle in Baltimore - I promise you that we would be talking about the division today.

Had Tim Wakefield and Manny Delcarmen not been auditioning for their postseason lives – and failing at it - in Kansas City last night, Terry Francona might have managed like the AL East was still in play.

Had the Red Sox not blown a six-run lead last night to the Royals, the deficit would be a mere four games – three in the loss column, with a three-game set in New York this weekend.

Granted, even with a four-game deficit, the Red Sox would still need to play flawlessly down the stretch to even have the pipe dream become a reality. Sean McAdam points out today that the Yankees would need to play merely .500 the rest of the way, and the Red Sox would need to go 12-1 to forge a tie. But it astounds me to hear talk show hosts, columnists, and fellow bellied-up patrons continually dismiss the AL East title, as if it would grant the Red Sox little more than a pat on the back and a Rainbow Brite “Superstar” sticker.

The Red Sox manhandle the Angels in the postseason, so goes the argument, and truthfully so. Why would they want to relinquish the wild card when they can head to the ALDS with what amounts to a first-round bye vs. Anaheim? I actually heard one talk show host yesterday argue the point that one extra home game per series wasn’t worth the desire for gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Even if the Red Sox have the best home record (52-22) in the game? Makes sense to not to want to play a Game 5 or 7 at Fenway. Print the wild card T-shirts.

If the Red Sox were lucky enough to wrangle the AL East crown away from the Yankees, it would most likely mean home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (unless the 90-60 Angels were to creep up win more than both Boston and New York). It would mean hoping that the Angels could handle the Yankees, against whom they are 5-3 this season, setting up what many would amount to a “second-round bye” vs. Los Angeles in the ALCS. It would mean hosting the ALCS vs. the Angels or Yankees, not having to travel to the Left Coast for Games 1 and 2, or not having to play them in the playoff atmosphere of Bronx, where, if you might remember, the Sox didn’t look so good on their last visit.

Game 1 starter is likely to be Josh Beckett, despite valid arguments that the honor should go to team ace Jon Lester. Beckett is 9-1 at Fenway this season with a 3.42 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and .211 BAA. On the road, he’s 6-5 with a 4.20 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and .261 BAA. Boston’s offense throttles the ball around Fenway to the tune of an .858 OPS, .760 on the road.

Of course, as fans, let’s be a little selfish here too. Winning the division means there won’t be any 10 p.m. weeknight starts.

But does that mean fans should start looking toward the title as an outright possibility? Again, had the Red Sox not suffered their worst loss of the season last night, and now face the task of going against Cy Young-to be Zack Greinke tonight (vs. Paul Byrd!), it might have been a hotter topic of water cooler discussion today. Realistically, it remains a distant hope that can fade with just a moment’s notice.

Of course, there’s another theory here. The Red Sox may actually be doing the Yankees a favor.

In the same way it stands to reason why wild card entrants have been so successful in the playoffs, carrying the late-season daily fight to survive right into October, it turns out that teams who have sat back and prepared for the playoffs to come to them haven’t fared nearly as well.

Brittany Ghiroli points out in USA Today:

In the last 10 years, the team that finished the regular season with the biggest division lead hasn't won the World Series. Of those 10 teams, five were bumped off in the first round, while four lost in the League Championship Series.

Only one of them, the 2004 Cardinals, reached the World Series, though the Cards were swept by the Red Sox, the AL wild-card team that won seven fewer games than St. Louis… Since the sport switched to a three-division format and added a wild card — played out into the postseason for the first time in 1995 — teams have won the World Series as a wild card more often than as the runaway division winner. Four wild-card teams — the 1997 and 2003 Florida Marlins, the 2002 Angels and 2004 Red Sox — have won the World Series.

Since the wild card was added, the only team to translate the biggest divisional lead in baseball into a World Series title was the 1998 Yankees.

The Yankees don’t own that distinction in ‘09 – it once again belongs to the Cardinals, 10 games up on the Cubs – but the fact that they have to fight off the Red Sox these next two weeks may end up helping them in the long run of Oct.-Nov. Same goes for the Red Sox, who will no doubt want to find a manageable balance of resting players for October and not surrendering what could be an important piece of the puzzle.

The Red Sox are all but in, which, really, is all that matters. But to dismiss the division is missing a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to paving the road to the World Series.

Had they not lost last night, of course, we’d be talking about it. They didn’t, so we won’t.

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