Awfully fun to have an honest-to-goodness pennant race around here again, isn’t it?
The Red Sox, occasionally exasperating but relentlessly resilient, are two games up on the Blue Jays and Orioles for the lead in the American League East. Those Blue Jays and Orioles stand two games up on the Yankees in the quest for the two wild-card spots, while the non-AL East citizen Tigers are also even with New York, which has hit the contradictory double bonus of somehow thriving since paring some key veterans from the roster.
At least, that’s how it all stood as of Wednesday afternoon. With all four teams playing again today — including an important third game of the Red Sox-Orioles set at Fenway — the standings will have undergone a few alterations when the day is done.
Which, I hope you agree, is how it should be this time of year. Anyone who has rooted for the Red Sox since Bud Selig’s precious wild-card concept was implemented post-strike in 1995 has to have some appreciation for the wild card’s value. Without it, Red Sox history is different, and undeniably worse. The 2004 Red Sox were wild-card entrants to the playoffs. That postseason ended rather well. By pre-’95 rules, they would not have been a participant.
But the wild card was added not without expense. The classic pennant races were all but sacrificed with the addition of a non-division winning team to the playoffs, since the divisional runner-up still had a decent chance of earning a playoff spot. Imagine how, say, the ’78 AL East race would have been different had the wild card existed and the 99-win, second-place Red Sox been assured of a spot in the tournament. Bucky Dent would be remembered as just another overrated pretty-boy Yankees shortstop. The wild card added intrigue — or at least another round — to October, but it had to sacrifice some September suspense to do it.
That was remedied in ’12 to some degree when the second wild-card spot was added, with the two non-division-winning teams being forced to square off in a one-game playoff to qualify for the divisional round. That feels like too much of a pivot in the other direction; the wild card is now devalued too much, I think. Playing 162 games over seven months only to have it all hinge on the random quirks and twists of a single game is a baseball cruelty that should not occur in each league every year. But at least it has contributed to giving us what we have now: an old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out brawl for the division title. Watch out for those haymakers, Bautista, proverbial and otherwise.
With a two-game lead and just 18 remaining, the Red Sox must be considered the favorites to win the AL East. The math agrees. As my wise friend Alex Speier noted in his newsletter Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus has the Red Sox at a 95.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a 70.7 percent chance of winning the division.
I think we’ll all take those odds, especially considering the occasionally turbulent but mostly enjoyable journey that brought them to this point. These Red Sox have a dominant thriving-despite-adversity gene, and this season in general has been a nice turnabout after two straight last-place finishes. This isn’t last year, or the year before, and it’s not the sinking ship of September 2011, either.
Oh, sure, this team will cause us to slap our foreheads in disbelief a few more times along the way. It’s who they are and what they do, or what they make us do, I should say. But the exasperation, much more often than not, will cede to excitement. For the first time all season, I believe they will win the division.
I thought the Blue Jays would emerge as the AL East’s best team by the time the summer began morphing into the fall. That hasn’t happened, and it won’t. The Red Sox’ stirring 11-8 victory Sunday, which included a blown 4-1 lead (just when we start to trust ya, Clay …) and the overcoming of 6-4 and 8-6 deficits, seemed the tipping point. They certainly thought so in Toronto, where there are hints that the talented Jays’ character and camaraderie is somewhat lacking compared to the Red Sox’.
The Red Sox have split with the Orioles since, but nothing has happened to damage the emerging confidence in this team. David Price and Rick Porcello are pitching like co-aces. Solutions seem to be revealing themselves in the bullpen (regarding Koji Uehara, does anyone know how to say “guts of a burglar” in Japanese?). And the lineup is ferocious, with David Ortiz still singing one hell of a swan song and Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia especially locked in, even as Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts try to jostle their bats awake for the home stretch.
It’s not going to be an easy couple of weeks. The Red Sox have seven games left with the resurgent Yankees, five (including Wednesday) with the Orioles, and they end the season with a three-game set with the Jays. Chances are the AL East standings will be reshuffled a bit from how they look at the moment. But one two things will remain in place: The Rays will be at the bottom. And the Red Sox will be at the top. It hasn’t been an easy road. But as the destination nears, it’s starting to feel like it might be a fulfilling one.