Let's start with 2006, in which there were two: Tampa Bay and Kansas City.
Remember, these were the days when the Rays were still the Devil Rays. They weren't your present-day, 9-8, prevailing-over-Boston-in-the-ALCS Rays. They were still, at that point, the Devil Rays. The laughingstock on the AL East.
And still, the Red Sox couldn't beat them. At least not consistently.
The Red Sox have always had trouble winning at the Trop, but in 2006 — a year in which the Red Sox battled a slew of injuries to key players immediately after the trade deadline had passed in order to hang in the race as long as they could — winning any and all games against Tampa Bay was a necessity, and it was something they just couldn't do. In 2006, the Devil Rays finished 61-101. Boston went just 10-9 against them.
When you're facing the weakest team in your division 19 times per season, that just cannot happen if you want to be playing baseball instead of golf in October. It's different when you're facing the Yankees; you just can't be expected to beat them every time out, ever, even when they're not "good," like in 2008.
But with the Devil Rays, a win just could not be expected, no matter how bad they were.
In 2006, though, there was yet another team that was the bane of Boston's existence: Kansas City. Fortunately, the Red Sox only had to face them nine times, but still, they finished 4-5 against a lowly Royals team that went 62-100.
One thing the Red Sox did right in 2006 was get the wins they needed during interleague play. That year, they went 16-2 against the Braves, Marlins, Mets, Phillies and Nationals. Everyone always claims that the National League is soft and therefore interleague games are ones the AL teams can’t afford to lose, but still, in 2006, the Braves and the Mets were no slouches, and Boston managed to get the job done against them to score some must-wins.
The point is simple. In order to be successful, the Red Sox need to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. They can’t afford to barely go .500 against the weakest teams in their division, because in a league like the AL East, winning the division — and making the playoffs — is more often than not decided by just a few games.
Those weaker divisional opponents are precisely the ones the Red Sox need to dominate. Every year, there’s at least one team — whether it be the Orioles, the Rays or the Blue Jays — the Red Sox just can’t trump consistently. Maybe it’s too much to ask for Boston to go 19-0 against every weaker team in their division, but is 14-5 too much to ask? What about 13-6?
In 2007, the Red Sox went 9-9 against Toronto. The Jays finished 83-79 that year. Not horrible, but not good enough. In 2008, the Red Sox again went 9-9 against Toronto and 8-10 against the Rays — but for that, they can’t really be faulted. The Rays represented the AL in the World Series; the Jays, however, again finished fourth in the AL East.
In 2009, the Red Sox dominated Baltimore with a 16-2 record, they took 11 of 19 from the Blue Jays and went 9-9 against both Tampa Bay and New York. They finished .500 or better against each team in the AL East, and it certainly mattered down the stretch, when Boston found itself entrenched in a wild-card battle with the Rangers.
Every year, the team to beat has been different. Sometimes, it depends on the team the Red Sox are dueling with for rights to the wild card (not that that particularly mattered in 2009, when Boston went a disgusting 2-7 against the Rangers — and it should have been 1-8, but the Red Sox somehow snagged a win in that horrendous extra innings game in August, when Clay Buchholz was used as a pinch runner). Sometimes, it depends on the team Boston is battling for first place in the East. Sometimes, it comes down to reeling off wins against those token AL teams that start to struggle once June hits.
But in a division like the AL East, starting with wins against the perennial strugglers never fails.
*** From now until Opening Day, NESN.com will run down 25 things that need to happen for the Red Sox to win the World Series.
From now until Opening Day, NESN.com will run down 25 things that need to happen for the Red Sox to win the World Series.
March 30:Clay Buchholz pitches a full season in the majors.