Looming in the shadow of Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Yankees was not only the fact that it was the 18th straight game in which the Red Sox were without slugger Manny Ramirez, but that it might have played a deciding role in which team wins the American League East.
Keep in mind that if Boston and New York finish the year with identical records atop the division, the title goes to the Yankees and the wild card to Boston, just as it did in 2005 when the deciding factor came down to their head-to-head results. The Yankees sealed the season series, 10-8, Sunday.
Last night, the Yankees shaved another game off Boston’s season-long lead, which is now just 3˝ games, with an 8-5 win over the Orioles, while the Red Sox were baffled by Dustin McGowan north of the border. Boston, which has touted the best record in the game for much of the summer, now finds itself just two wins better than both the Angels and Indians, who are also vying for home-field advantage and scheduling preference.
Boston's magic number is nine for the division, five to make the playoffs, and while it would take a monumental collapse for those digits not to decrease to naught, there are plenty of situations that need sorting out before the final 11 come to completion, including the not-so-small matters of home-field, scheduling, and first-round opponent. And the Indians and Angels indeed are not cooperating in those matters.
Which brings us, of course, to Manny.
Missing since Aug. 28 with a strained oblique, Ramirez has started taking cuts in the batting cage, and by all accounts looks like he’s recovered and ready to go. Of course, he’s not, a situation manager Terry Francona tiptoed around yesterday in Toronto.
“He needs to clear himself," Francona said. "The medical people have gotten fairly aggressive, he's swinging the bat fairly aggressively, but there has to be . . . a confidence from himself that he can go play the game and not hurt himself. And that's a hard thing. Myself included, you see him go hit the ball out on the street, you go, 'Oh man,' but you can really make some disastrous mistakes trying to read somebody else's body. It doesn't work."
Our translation: Look who we're talking about here.
It wouldn’t be a Red Sox season without some form of a mini-Manny controversy. The Red Sox are 10-9 since Ramirez left the lineup last month in the Bronx, but of those nine losses six have been by two runs or fewer. Four have been one-run losses, including a pair over the weekend vs. the Yankees. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how Ramirez might have changed a number of those outcomes, especially considering how well Jacoby Ellsbury has performed in his absence, but potentially his bat’s presence might have been good enough to swing even one of those close losses back Boston’s way.
Barring his return to the lineup in the immediate future, this will be the first time in a decade that Manny does not produce a 100-RBI season. It will be his first sub-30 home run year since that same season of ’97. His .880 OPS is the lowest in his career since 1994, his second season in the major leagues.
It is his worst season with the Red Sox, and yet he remains a vital cog in their late-season push. On the bench.
Not to generate the creation of a plethora of “Leave Manny alone” pleas, but the Red Sox need their man more than ever now with the subtraction of Kevin Youkilis (hit by a Chien-Ming Wang pitch on Saturday) from the lineup. Last night’s nine looked more like a team playing out the string rather than a mere few wins away from a playoff spot. We all saw Derek Jeter limping around on the field the other night. We also saw him smacking a three-run jack that could potentially be the difference in the AL East if things get that far. Then again, Jeter's injury could very well end up hurting his team in the end as well.
It’s true that the oblique is a tricky thing -- even sidelining Orioles ace Erik Bedard for the remainder of the season -- which is why the Red Sox have been cautious in bringing Ramirez back. But now that it’s officially up to him as to when he returns -- well, that just opens the door now doesn’t it?
"I mean, it's easy for us to sit here and go, 'We'd like him to play,'" Francona said. "Nine times out of 10, he's probably OK. But he's got to know inside that he can play the game and not hurt himself."
Francona had said that he hoped Ramirez would be back in the lineup by tomorrow. More likely is a return this weekend once the Red Sox hit Tampa Bay. That would give Ramirez nine games as a tuneup for October, provided he doesn’t sit some more once the division is wrapped up. And to be fair, Francona has a lot more pressing issues than when to get Ramirez back in the lineup. Namely, whom he’s going to take out once that comes to pass.
The more we see, the more obvious it becomes that he can’t sit Ellsbury, which means we could see some sort of three-way platoon among him, J.D. Drew (batting .295 this month with a .431 on-base percentage, second only to David Ortiz), and Coco Crisp. Once the playoffs start, I wouldn’t want Francona’s duty of telling one of his outfield veterans they’re sitting in favor of the dazzling rookie.
Nor would I want the job of waiting around for Manny, because we know how potentially long that can take.
While a healthy Ramirez for October is the ultimate goal, realism tells us that nothing has been decided yet. With a prime opportunity to lay out its own playoff schedule, as well as assure it plays more games at Fenway Park, where the Sox are tied for the third-best home record (47-28) in the AL with Cleveland (New York, 48-27 and Anaheim 50-25 are tops), the Red Sox have dropped four of their last seven, and are forced to watch their division lead dwindle. But does it even matter? If the Sox go 6-5 over their final 11 games, the Yankees still need to go 10-2 to catch them in the East, which while not impossible, seems to make their stranglehold on the division that much clearer.
But nothing else is. Including the status of Manny Ramirez, who it appears, once again, is the only one privy to such information. "What's the rush?" some fans ask. "As long as he's ready for the playoffs."
True. But Boston is in danger of letting someone else snatch away the benefits that come with the best record in the league. And while his return may indeed be imminent, it certainly doesn't help to keep noticing that Manny Ramirez is still on the bench, working out the kinks and deciding for himself when to return. Whenever that may be.