As far as late-season collapses go, it doesn’t touch what happened in these parts two years ago, but alas, the Texas Rangers’ slide is now complete following Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game No. 163.
The Rangers went 12-16 last month, figuring out what ailed them for most of September only when it was too late. They went from up by 2 ½ games in mid-August to down as many as 8 ½ on Sept. 23, paving the way for the Oakland A’s to take the AL West. As for the Rays, they get to travel to Cleveland for Wednesday’s one-game wild card play-in game. The winner there will be in Boston Friday for the start of the ALDS against the Red Sox.
This is clearly new territory from a Boston perspective. With the play-in game only in its infancy, the Red Sox have never had to sit and wait to see who their playoff opponent would be, never mind awaiting the outcomes of two games for three teams. Way back in 2009, the last time the Red Sox made the postseason, it was a foregone conclusion for much of September that they’d play the Angels. The Sox won that year’s wild card by eight games over the Rangers, the same number of games Boston finished behind the Yankees in the AL East. This time around, they have to wait with the Cardinals to see which teams the two squads with the best records in baseball will host this weekend.
So, who you want?
In the Rays, the Sox would get a team against which they were 12-7 against during the regular season, but one that boasts a three-headed danger sign of starting arms with David Price, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore. The Indians probably pose the easiest path to the ALCS, complete with the fascinating story line that would have manager Terry Francona returning to Boston to face his former team.
The Sox were 6-1 against Cleveland during the regular season, even roughing up old friend and Cy Young Award candidate Justin Masterson to the tune of a 7.36 ERA over two starts. And from the Red Sox’ pitching perspective, either matchup would be a welcome development. Neither Cleveland nor Tampa Bay exactly possesses a Murderers Row.
Cleveland was 2-4 against the Rays during the regular season. Tampa has to be considered the favorite, which is a somewhat frightening aspect for Red Sox fans. Tampa’s pitching can be scary, particularly in a five-game series. Price may have gone the distance Monday night, but there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be ready for a Game 2 start on Saturday. And if Jon Lester has a hiccup in Game 1 … well, those prospects wouldn’t be fun.
Besides, you want Cleveland. Who doesn’t?
Yes, yes, “story lines” can be overblown ways to preview a series (Harbaugh Bowl!!), but a Cleveland-Boston ALDS is just far too compelling to want to pass up. Francona’s quip Monday about Cleveland’s success over the last month being attributed to “no chicken and beer” was only the genesis of what could be a tension-filled series with his return to Fenway, where the owners whom he said some … um, things about in his best-selling tell-all haven’t exactly swept his comments under the rug just yet. (Hey, maybe there can even be another book signing. Where’s Shaughnessy?)
But beyond the “revenge” factor, it would be only fitting that Francona’s rebound, two years after the low point of his baseball career, gets its due in Boston, where he remains as popular as ever. It would be amigo vs. amigo in the dugout, Francona and Farrell the two obvious front-runners for Manager of the Year.
From seven September wins in 2011 to 21 in 2013, it was the sort of stretch run that Francona deserved after the way he was unceremoniously dumped and had his name dragged through the mud by unnamed sources upon his dismissal. It would only be fitting to have his season end here.
Two years ago, Francona was Ron Washington. Today, he’s the architect of leading the AL’s most surprising team. Maybe it all ends tomorrow.
We should just really hope it doesn’t.