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The Revealing Nature of Boston's Remaining Schedule

NEW YORK - AUGUST 09:  Jonathan Paplebon #58 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates victory over the New York Yankees during their game on August 9 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - AUGUST 09: Jonathan Paplebon #58 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates victory over the New York Yankees during their game on August 9 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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With a record of 65-49, the Boston Red Sox rank third in the entire American League in terms of wins. The problem being, that same total remains good enough for just the third-highest in their own division -- Major League Baseball’s toughest -- the East.

As of Wednesday morning, Boston finds themselves four and a half games off the Wild Card pace set by the slumping Tampa Bay Rays and five back of the Yankees’ division lead. Yet, in spite of that, the Red Sox are still widely considered a potential playoff participant and, similarly to the rest of the baseball world, they aren’t giving up on themselves just yet.

And why should they?

After all, Boston still boasts one of the league’s top -- albeit constantly augmented -- offenses, as well as an increasingly healthy and imposing roster. Both have been on display recently, particularly in Tuesday night's victory against the Toronto Blue Jays, as recent disabled list returnees Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie and Mike Lowell keyed the club’s reentry into the realm of consecutive road wins.

But will Boston’s resilience and resolve be enough to conquer those standing between them and October baseball or will the 2010 Red Sox finally succumb to a season marred by injury depletion, less than stellar luck and what projects to be an extremely tumultuous remaining schedule?

There is a plethora of reasoning to justify optimistic rationalization from ‘Red Sox Nation’ regarding the outlook for the season’s second half -- compounding health being the most notable.

Aside from Lowell and Lowrie’s resounding contributions last night, Wednesday marks one week since the reactivation of outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury who, just now, appears to be hitting his stride; that should bode well for a lineup which remains without second baseman Dustin Pedroia at this moment in time.

Just how long that moment will be, fortunately, is looking less grim each and every day. Pedroia, whose recovery from a foot injury had been relatively lethargic until recently, has willed his return date from a tentative status to what is believed to be set at sometime within the next week, give or take. At this point, according to reports, he is now without discomfort when running at full tilt and will undergo a few more evaluations before being unleashed at Pawtucket to begin a rehab assignment this Saturday.

However, the general outlook isn’t without its negatives either.

Like Kevin Youkilis, who is lost to the disabled list for the remainder of the year, centerfielder Mike Cameron has again been designated for a trip to the DL -- a place that he is all-too-familiar with this season. And while fellow outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and first-year sensation Ryan Kalish aid the alleviation of that dilemma, it’s growing increasingly unlikely that the Red Sox will ever experience a time in 2010 where they are remotely close to being considered universally healthy.

Will the aforementioned circumstances inevitably hinder the possibility of postseason inclusion for Boston? The answer to that may be influenced by pre-established conditions more so than those contingent on any singular pressing issue, such as the health of Dustin Pedroia.

Prospecting the final two months of the Red Sox’s season, as well as their playoff potential, can be done quite effectively using the veritable crystal ball that is the remaining regular season schedule. Similar to the topic of health, the Red Sox’s schedule for the season’s final two months conjures as much optimism as it does pessimism. And, as in most cases, perception is inevitably based on the beholder; it’s all about how you choose to look at it.

For instance, the Red Sox’s remaining opponents hold a combined winning percentage of just .514 entering play Wednesday, and against them Boston is six games above .500 at 37-31.

However, much of that winning record overall stems from the fact that against both the Blue Jays and Angels in particular, who account for eleven of the Red Sox’s final forty-eight games, Boston is 15-2. Meaning that, without including Chicago, who they have yet to face, the Red Sox own a winning record versus just two of the remaining eight teams that they've previously faced and are 22-29 against all those that don’t call Toronto or Anaheim -- or Los Angeles for that matter -- home.

In addition, twenty-two of the forty-eight games from here until the end of the regular season, or 46%, will come against teams that, if the regular season ended today, would qualify for the playoffs based on the current standings. Those teams would be the Yankees, Rangers and Rays, who the Red Sox are a combined 12-19 against. Not to mention over half of those twenty-two games -- twelve to be exact -- are against the Yankees and Rays in particular, who have handled Boston so far this season to a record of 15-9.

And yet, one can always find the positive aspect of things if one truly wants to. For instance, the Rays and Yankees -- the two teams Boston is presently chasing -- still have seven games remaining against one another. Regardless of those results, the Red Sox will be in great position to make up ground on the days that those two go head-to-head. If either team ends up dominating the remainder of that series, Boston stands to gain ground on whichever team does the faltering. In the event that they end up trading blows equally, so to speak, then the Red Sox are in control of their own fate and can make up ground on both simultaneously if they play well enough.

Similarly, the remaining twelve scheduled games against both the Rays and Yankees provide enough opportunities for Boston to inflict damage themselves rather than wait around and hope one team ultimately fades out of contention by their own accord. Consider this: The Red Sox currently trail the Rays by 4.5 games in the race for the fourth playoff spot in the American League. If Boston can win even four of their final six against Tampa Bay -- not a stretch by any means -- then they go from having to make up 4.5 games in the last 48 to merely needing to pick up 2.5 with 42 remaining, figuratively speaking.

Similarly to with the Tampa Bay and New York situation, Boston will play twelve of their remaining forty-eight games -- exactly one quarter’s worth -- against the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners, who are a collectively awful 83-144 (.366).

The Orioles are an astounding thirty games behind the A.L. East leading Yankees and own baseball’s worst record, 39-74 (.345). Only the Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates have allowed more runs than Baltimore’s mark of 605 and their -181 run differential isn’t any higher in relation to the rest of the league. Boston will play two separate three-game sets against the last place Orioles -- one at home and one in Baltimore.

Seattle has amassed baseball’s fewest runs scored to this point in the season with 369 (3.2/game) en route to a 44-70 record. Floundering at the bottom of what is arguably the American League’s most mediocre division and having recently relieved Don Wakamatsu of his managerial duties, the Mariners’ six games versus the Red Sox represents an opportunity for Boston to make up ground, or at the very least avoid losing any, in the A.L. East and their push for the playoffs.

With such a large fraction of the team’s final forty-eight games coming against such anemic opposition, one would think that the Red Sox are in prime position to close the gap between them and a spot in the playoff picture. However, that may not necessarily be the case if the past is any indication of the immediate future.

Again, perception is the key here.

To this point in the season Boston is just a combined 8-8 against that very same tandem of previously mentioned American League basement-dwellers [Seattle, Baltimore]; instead turning the few ‘should win’ series into ‘must wins’ if they hope to stay in contention.

If the Red Sox fail to take advantage of the fairer aspect of their remaining schedule -- just as they did through the season’s first half -- then they’ll have justified the organization’s decision to refrain from making any substantial deadline acquisitions in postseason preparation, and in turn, they’ll be watching the postseason theatrics unfold no differently than other teams such as Baltimore and Seattle -- from home.

Which provides an ample segue way to the next topic: The remaining home schedule.

Per usual, the friendly confines of Fenway Park have served the Red Sox well in 2010; Boston is 34-23 at home compared to a mark of 31-26 on the road. On the positive side of things, not only will Boston play twenty-one more games at home this season, they’ll do so against opponents that they have faired notably well against -- to the tune of a 31-20 record.

August 17-25th could serve as the most crucial home stand of the season’s home stretch. In its nine games, the Red Sox welcome the Angels, Blue Jays and Mariners, respectively, for three games a piece. Against that particular trio, Boston holds a collective and impressive 17-4 record thus far in 2010.

However, just as games at Fenway have been friendly for the Sox, those away from it have been almost equally unforgiving.

Including Wednesday night’s game in Toronto, the Red Sox have a total of twenty-four road contests left to weather. Even more unfortunate, Boston holds just a 30-31 record against their remaining road foes.

While the current ten-game stretch away from Fenway Park may have appeared the most grueling of the 2010’s final two months coming in, it may very well be the season’s last road trip that determines whether or not the Red Sox will earn a trip to the playoffs.

September 24th-30th features a seven-game road stand against two of the American League’s top teams, the A.L. East leading Yankees and current Wild Card frontrunners, the Chicago White Sox.

While Boston has yet to play the White Sox, who are 33-21 at U.S. Cellular Field, they are just 5-7 against the Yankees, who are an American League-best 37-20 record at home. Making that particular stretch the greatest test that Boston will face this season and effectively setting the stage for, what may be, the concluding series of the season in its entirety -- a three-game finale at home versus New York.

The Red Sox, even at five games back in the toughest division of Major League Baseball’s toughest league, are by no means out of the playoff picture. For example, in the month of July, thanks in large part to a 12-13 record, Boston dropped a total of six games in the divisional standings. However, back from May 24th-June 22nd, in slightly less time than it took to drop them in July, the Red Sox managed to pick up six games in those very same American League East standings.

Once again, it’s all dependent on how you choose to see things.

However, one thing is for certain: As it goes for any of baseball’s perennial powerhouses, taking care of business at home or against weaker opponents is expected of you. After all, if you cannot consistently beat non-playoff caliber teams, it’s likely because you’re one yourself. Boston will have the luxury, if you will, of facing that challenge due to such a large and forgiving portion of their remaining games coming against some of the weakest competition featured in the American League.

And yet, winning a September series against a team in flux and without a true manager like the current Seattle Mariners is one thing, doing so on the road while facing a New York or Chicago team jockeying for valuable playoff position is what qualifies you as a contender.

In all likelihood, as Boston enters the final weeks of the season they’ll find that those circumstances are exactly what lie in front of them. So long as they stay afloat in the meantime, we’ll finally be shown whether this Red Sox club is destined to repeat the fate had by a similarly injury-plagued 2006 team or if they can somehow overcome and overtake those obstacles in their way.