I think we've reached the point in the season where it would be a big disappointment if the Red Sox failed to reach the postseason. Despite the lack of expectations coming into the year that has led to the season to this point being a major success, it'd be another collapse (albeit not near the level of 2011) if they couldn't manage to at least take one of the wild card spots. With a six-and-a-half game lead over Baltimore, currently the best team out of a playoff spot, the postseason should be in Boston's future. What's not definite, though, is the AL East title. With the new rules that started last year which added another playoff team, and with it a one-game wild-card round, winning the division is a premium. Doing so ensures that the team avoids the extreme crapshoot that is a one-game playoff, and instead moves on to the regular crapshoot that is a best-of-five series. With a two-and-a-half game lead over Tampa Bay in the division, here are five keys for the Red Sox to hold onto that lead through the end of the season.
This season has been defined by fringy, unexpected players stepping up and leading this team to victories. However, they will still need their stars to consistently produce if they want to find themselves atop the AL East when this season ends. Unfortunately, that hasn't been happening with Dustin Pedroia in the second half. After hitting .316/.396/.436 (127 wRC+) in the first half, the star second baseman has sputtered to a weak .270/.335/.382 (94 wRC+) line since the All-Star break. That is not production that is going to cut it from a number three hitter. The Red Sox have been able to stay with their winning ways, thanks to other guys stepping up, especially Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino. Those two guys won't be keeping up this current pace, though, (moreso the latter than the former) and that is where the stars need to come in. Pedroia does have a .287 batting average on balls in play in the second half - nearly 30 points below his career norm - with a 21 percent line drive rate that is slightly better than his career rate, so there is a good chance he bounces back before this season is over. If he does, it will put the Red Sox in a very good position to hold off the Rays.
Back of the Bullpen
With games against the Rays, Orioles, Yankees and Tigers coming up, there are sure to be close games, where late-inning pitching will be at a premium. At the very back-end, the Red Sox are clearly all set, since Koji Uehara has been nothing short of amazing, as his 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.4 walks per nine and 1.22 ERA all indicate. Unfortunately, John Farrell has shown a tendency to avoid him in non-save situations, despite the fact that a shutdown reliever may be needed. Because of this, there is a need for a couple other arms to step up when Uehara isn't used. Junichi Tazawa is one obvious choice. Though he's been more prone to allowing the big hit than he was in his breakout 2012 campaign, his 2.75 ERA, 9.6 K's per nine and 7.0 K/BB ratio are still outstanding. The big issue is who steps up to be the second setup man. Craig Breslow is one option, with a 2.12 ERA and 3.49 FIP on the season. However, his 4.8 K's per nine (6th lowest amongst all relievers with at least 30 innings this season) are a bit worrisome for a pitcher in such a big spot. Personally, I'd lean towards Brandon Workman stepping up in that spot, as he has the strikeout abilities (9.9 per 9) and pure stuff more associated with back-end relievers. His inexperience could be a big hurdle, though. Whoever it is, the Red Sox will need someone to step up alongside Uehara and Tazawa down the stretch.
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You had to have seen this one coming, right? Clay Buchholz's injuries have been speculated upon and diagnosed from couches across Boston for months now, but his return is finally imminent. After a really rough rehab start a couple days ago with Lowell, he will be making two more before making his first MLB appearance since early June on September 10th. Before he was hurt, Buchholz was the best pitcher in the league, pitching to a Kershaw-esque 1.71 ERA supported by a 2.46 FIP. If he can even approach that level in September, that would allow Boston to move its one weak link in the rotation (Ryan Dempster) to the bullpen, giving them a five-man rotation that can match up with any team in baseball. It may not be the best in the league, but with the current lineup, a Buchholz/Lackey/Lester/Peavy/Doubront rotation should be more than enough to avoid the Wild Card playoff game.
Like Pedroia, David Ortiz needs to be a consistent star-level bat in this lineup the rest of the way. He is in a big slump right now - his last hit came in the Ryan Dempster vs. Alex Rodriguez game - but at this point it isn't overly worrisome. Slumps happen for everyone, and this isn't nearly as long as the mediocrity that Pedroia is mired in at the moment. That being said, he needs to get back into the swing of things soon. While the Red Sox are currently the second-highest scoring offense in baseball, they are doing so mostly with on-base skills, not power. Ortiz is the one consistent power bat this lineup has. Saltalamacchia, Napoli, Middlebrooks, Gomes and Carp can all provide power as well, but none of them can do it consistently. The team's superior on-base skills is good enough to win them games all by itself. However, they need at least one guy who is a threat to clear the bases with one swing every time he comes to the plate, and David Ortiz is the only one with the ability to do it consistently right now.
There hasn't been a more surprising player in Boston this season than John Lackey, who was probably the least popular player on the team coming into the season, and definitely the worst pitcher in the game two years ago, before missing all of last season after Tommy John surgery. All he's done in 2013 is become the best pitcher in the rotation, despite an embarrassing lack of run support given the team's run scoring abilities. A few weeks ago, I decided that while a team could surely be a contender without a "true ace," it certainly helps to have one. Lackey continuing his current pace gives them that guy, even if Buchholz can't return to that high level this season. While the rest of the rotation has been very good as of late, they've also all shown big holes that have been exploited at times. Lackey has been the most consistent, and him continuing to do so would provide this solid rotation with the anchor they are looking for.
At least a few of these things are going to need to happen if the Red Sox want to avoid that dreaded one-game playoff. With a 2.5-game cushion, they may not need all of them, but if none of them come to fruition during the final game of the season, this team is looking at a wild card finish, or perhaps even worse.
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