Red Sox

Deep playoff field will be real challenge for Red Sox

They have their work cut out for them in the postseason.

Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees, USA - 20 Sep 2018
Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel is surrounded by his teammates on the pitchers mound after the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees to win the American League East Division Title at Yankee Stadium in New York, New York on September 20, 2018. Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

If you’re looking for assurances that the 108-win Red Sox are about to parlay their regular-season excellence into a fourth World Series championship in 15 seasons and another lovely ride on the Duck Boats, well, I wish I could help you, but I can’t.

It doesn’t work that way. The postseason includes eight excellent teams (once the wild cards are settled) that are duking it out amongst themselves in a very small sample size of games. Should one or two players start to sizzle at the same time, or one ace pitcher go haywire, that can lift a very good team over an excellent one with relative ease.

Advertisement:

The Red Sox won 108 games, the defending champion Astros 103, the wild-card Yankees 100. Terry Francona’s Indians won “just’’ 91 games, and we know the beautiful music he’s capable of orchestrating in the playoffs.

And no team in baseball had a better record than the A’s in the second half (42-23). Be careful what you wish for in the wild-card game, because Billy Beane’s no-names might just make themselves known.

When Cleveland has the fewest wins of the lot, you know you’re dealing with some high-end competition.

Red Sox fans know that a superb regular season means little more in the postseason than an assurance that you belong. The 2004 world champs won it all from the wild-card position. And for every favorite that wins handily (the 114-win 1998 Yankees, the best damn team I ever hated), there is a 2001 Mariners (116 regular-season wins, ousted in the ALCS) that has a brief layover in the playoffs en route to lasting disappointment.

Advertisement:

Of course the Sox can win it all. Maybe they will. But we’re wise to acknowledge the quality of the competition and the challenges of the journey in their quest for 11 more victories.

This is not an attempt to pour cold water when you were expecting champagne. Big things obviously are possible, the kind you remember forever. Now that the opponent quality has been appropriately acknowledged, I must say it does feel different this year for the Red Sox. This is their third straight AL East title, and they’ve gone 1-6 en route to beating the traffic to the postseason exit the last two years, but this team did win 15 more games than each of the AL East winners of the last two years.

Advertisement:

I think that matters in one significant and basic way: It’s a real sign that they’re better equipped for the postseason than they have been the last two years, seasons that in context must be considered successful. With a more well-rounded roster — Mookie Betts had a season that belongs on Willie Mays’s baseball card, J.D. Martinez gave them the post-Papi slugger they lacked last year, and David Price posted a 2.25 ERA in 11 second-half starts — this a superior club.

And that’s without considering the significant upgrade in the dugout. John Farrell won a World Series here, but I doubt you could find anyone in the vicinity of Jersey Street to claim he’s a better manager than Alex Cora, who is remarkably bright and prepared while coming across as calm and competitive at once. It’s quite a contrast to Farrell, who managed, understandably, with the tension of a man whose job was on the line. Did they get this hire right.

Advertisement:

Sure, there are concerns. Chris Sale looked like 1998 Pete Schourek in his last start. None of their accomplished starters owns a postseason win, which is almost unfathomable. The bullpen, even in its best days, walks too many batters. And on its worst days, the relievers could be charged with conspiring to commit arson. They might even be convicted.

Still, all you have to do is look back at last year’s Division Series loss to the eventual champ Astros in four games to feel better about this team’s chances.

Consider: Dustin Pedroia was the coleader of the ’17 Sox in plate appearances in that series (18, tied with Xander Bogaerts), and hit .125. Drew Pomeranz started Game 2, Doug Fister started Game 3, and Price didn’t start at all. Joe Kelly collected the Sox’ only win of the series, while Addison Reed was their leader in pitching appearances. Bogaerts, who has thrived under Cora, hit .059. The Sox hit five homers in the series, or two more than the Astros’ Jose Altuve had in Game 1.

Advertisement:

This is not the same roster; it’s superior, and neither the A’s nor the Yankees are as loaded as the ’17 Astros, who had five hitters with an OPS over 1.000 in the series.

The Red Sox are due for some sample sizes to break their way. I can see Betts, who has been on fire lately, having a series like Altuve (the 2017 MVP) had last year. Martinez is capable of putting a lineup on his back, and not just for a short span. Bogaerts has had the best season of his career, and he had postseason success five years ago as a wide-eyed 20-year-old. This might be his time.

Advertisement:

There are no assurances this time of year. But this might be the Red Sox’ time, too. They never lost more than three games in a row all season. If they can get through the postseason without losing three games in a series, they will be champions.

That makes it sound easy. It won’t be. But they won’t require the reminder. This team has done it right from Day 1, and even with all of the aforementioned caveats, it’s easy to believe that this postseason will be different in satisfying ways.

They had the most wins in spring training. They had the most wins in the regular season. With 11 more, they’ll have the biggest victory of all.