BOSTON — The Red Sox had plenty of reasons to celebrate Thursday night at Fenway Park, yet they went through their postgame handshakes as if it was just another victory.
John Lackey carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning and ended up tossing a complete-game two-hitter as the Red Sox defeated the Orioles 3-1 to punch their ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2009. There was no pileup, no champagne and no fireworks, though. This bunch knows that there’s still work to be done.
“We know where we’re at. We knew what was pending. We still feel like the next step is a more important one than this,” manager John Farrell said following Thursday’s playoff-clinching win. “We know that we’re in, but we’ve said a few times that winning the East has been a stated goal since Day 1 of spring training. That’s getting closer, and I think that would be probably a little bit more of a realization of where we’ve come from and where we are at that moment.”
The Red Sox, who own an MLB-best 93-61 record, can lock up the AL East with a win or a Rays loss, and in all likelihood, the division-clinching victory will yield a celebration. It’s clear that the Red Sox are focused on riding their improbable 2013 magic as long as possible, though, and it’s a mindset that should serve them well as they head into October.
“It’s fun to come to work. Everybody goes out on that field and knows what their job is, and I think you’ve seen it all year,” said Stephen Drew, who launched a two-run homer Thursday. “That’s what’s great about this team. It’s not just one person. Everybody’s different each night and who comes up huge. The most important thing we’ve had all year is the pitching and defense, and the timely hitting just comes.”
The Red Sox are in a good place, and it’s for reasons beyond just mental makeup. This team has risen to the occasion time and time again this season, and it’s obvious that the group is scrappy, resilient and confident. But the Sox are also extremely talented, and their starting pitching depth heading into October is what ultimately has them looking like a legitimate World Series contender.
Jon Lester looks like an ace again. Clay Buchholz has shown signs in his first two starts off the disabled list that he’s capable of picking up right where he left off. Lackey has been consistent all season. And Jake Peavy has been better than advertised since joining the mix. In other words, the Red Sox’ playoff rotation is comprised of four pitchers whom Farrell will be comfortable handing the ball to in a big game.
The Tigers have plenty of offensive firepower, including the game’s best hitter in Miguel Cabrera, and their rotation is also deep. But Justin Verlander has been human this season, the Red Sox have already shown an ability to beat Max Scherzer and Doug Fister has struggled in the face of heightened competition.
The A’s have been on a tremendous run, and their pitching could cause problems for Boston, especially since Oakland’s hurlers typically pound the strike zone. But Oakland’s recent playoff failures loom large, and Boston has the more experienced rotation.
The AL wild card race, meanwhile, remains wide open, and none of the teams involved look like they want to lock down a spot. It’s hard to think too highly of any of the those squads at the moment.
The Red Sox’ offense has been terrific all season, but the rotation looks as solid now as it has all year. Lackey’s gem against the stacked lineup of the O’s served as further proof. Also, keep in mind that the Red Sox, who have only been swept twice all season, are battle-tested, having played in the AL East alongside three other contending teams.
Are the Red Sox the best team in baseball? Who knows? That’s a question we’re better off answering at the end of October. Boston is going to be very difficult to play against, though, and the team appears to be firing on all cylinders at the right time.
The Red Sox’ mental focus has probably made up for some shortcomings this season. But right now, the shortcomings are few and far between.