Red Sox deciding on path to playoffs
Boston may aim for health, Wild Card berth over pennant
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox are spending their final off-day of the 2008 season in a different country -- Canada -- but in such familiar territory. There are 10 games left, and barring a collapse of epic proportions, Boston will be in the postseason.
But there is still some intrigue over which all-access pass the Red Sox will arrive in October with. Will it be as American League East champions for the second consecutive season? Or will it be as the AL Wild Card entry -- which was the team's path in 2003-05?
Furthermore, does it truly matter?
"I don't think so," said a candid David Ortiz, Boston's star slugger. "If you're in, you're in. It doesn't matter. We won the division last year. We look forward to being back in the playoffs this year. I never noticed the difference between winning the division and going in as the Wild Card. As long as you're in, you're in. That's what everybody looks for -- being in the top four."
After all, Ortiz -- along with teammates Jason Varitek, Mike Timlin, Tim Wakefield, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett -- has won the World Series both ways.
Still, it's not as if Ortiz or any of his teammates are giving up on the division title, considering the reward would be home-field advantage for at least the first round. It's just that they aren't obsessing over it either way.
"We've got to try to win as many as we can out of these last 10," said Ortiz. "Then we think about what's going to happen."
What is likely to matter the most is how the Red Sox are playing and how healthy they are.
The health of Lowell and right fielder J.D. Drew is a true concern. Lowell is playing through a partial tear of the labrum in his right hip. Drew hasn't played since Aug. 17 because of back woes.
Ultimately, manager Terry Francona will have tough decisions to make if the standings stay as they are for the next few days. Boston, which next plays on Friday night at Toronto, trails Tampa Bay by two games in the AL East, though it's essentially three, because the Rays would win a tiebreaker between the two teams due to the fact that they won the season series.
Thanks to the recent struggles of the Twins, the Red Sox lead the Wild Card standings by seven games and hold a magic number of just four for clinching their fifth postseason berth in the past six years.
So if you're Francona, is your motive to pull out all the stops to win the division, or to make health a priority -- not to mention lining up the pitching staff for a potential postseason series?
Francona will let the minds of media members and fans wonder, but he says he's not ready to go there yet.
"We're going to try to play as good as we can," Francona said. "We're going to try to win every game we can. We have what, 10 games left? What we need to do is play good on Friday. That's always been the way we approach things. If I start talking about the rotation next week, that goes against everything we believe in with the players. I'm not going to do that."
Ortiz admits that the predicament -- to go all out or get ducks in a row -- is a somewhat tricky one.
"That's a good question," he said. "I never thought about it, but let's see what happens. The [Rays] have some tough teams to play still. We're in the same situation, but we have a lot of games at home -- seven out of our last 10. We play better at home. So let's see what happens."
|"If you're in, you're in. It doesn't matter. We won the division last year. We look forward to being back in the playoffs this year. I never noticed the difference between winning the division and going in as the Wild Card. As long as you're in, you're in. That's what everybody looks for -- being in the top four."|
|-- David Ortiz|
Beckett has dazzled in three starts since returning from the disabled list.
Though Curt Schilling is out for the season following surgery, the Boston right-hander is keeping close tabs on the team, and he looks at Beckett's recent return to health as nothing short of huge.
"The ace, the best October pitcher alive today, is healthy, fresh and throwing the ever-living [heck] out of the ball right now," Schilling wrote on his www.38pitches.com blog earlier this week. "Home field, especially for this team, is certainly something you'd like to end the season with, but having Beckett makes that almost a moot point. True October aces eliminate home-field advantage for the opponents.
"Back him up with Jon Lester and Daisuke [Matsuzaka] and I like the chances. I don't care who the first-round opponent is, and that's no disrespect whatsoever for the other three teams qualifying, but if I had a game to win, a must win, and I need to hand the ball to one guy in the world, that guy wears #19 for the Sox."
And you could be sure that if Schilling or any Red Sox fan had a choice, the one hitter they'd want at the plate with a game or season on the line is No. 34 -- Ortiz.
In the Wednesday night series finale in St. Petersburg, Ortiz mauled two home runs and took perhaps his fiercest cuts since returning from the disabled list on July 25.
"I've been swinging good the last few days," said Ortiz. "[I've been] feeling good in batting practice. Hopefully, I stay like that for a while."
Given that Wakefield is the only Boston player who has been on the club's last seven playoff entries, dating back to 1995, his opinion on which tact the Red Sox should take over the final 10 games is worth soliciting.
"First of all, we've got to get into the playoffs and then we'll worry about winning the division," Wakefield said. "But obviously, we want to win the division. We'll take a playoff berth no matter how it comes."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.