Time for a reality check: The Red Sox are almost definitely still going to make the playoffs. According to coolstandings.com, a website that runs millions of game simulations to predict outcomes and final standings, the Sox still have an 87.3 percent chance of winning the AL wild card.
That's down, a bit, after losing three of four against the last-place Baltimore Orioles. They finished the homestand 3-7 and will now hit the road to finish the season. That's probably a good thing, since they posted the worst record at Fenway Park by any Red Sox team since 2002.
The fact that Boston's lead in the playoff race hasn't evaporated is mostly due to the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays aren't a very good offensive team. They've got the best pitching rotation in the league, but you've got to hit, too. They've scored four runs in three games against the New York Yankees and are just about done. In fact, the hard-charging Angels probably have a better chance of catching the Sox.
Just not that good a chance. The Sox will back in the playoffs despite a woeful 5-16 record so far in September. They'll be in Detroit next Friday to open up the American League Division Series against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.
The real question is, will they have a chance to win in the postseason?
It's hard to imagine a team playing this badly suddenly turning things around when the games matter most. Yet, in baseball, we know momentum only carries you as far as the next day's starting pitcher. And the Sox still believe they have two of the best at the top of their rotation.
For most of Wednesday night's game, Josh Beckett looked like the ace who shut down the Rays last Friday at Fenway. That, you may recall, was the only time the Sox beat Tampa Bay (in seven tries) this month.
Beckett was close to dominant over the first five innings of his start against the Orioles. That was little solace at the end of the night, when his line showed six earned runs allowed in 7 1/3 innings pitched. Beckett seemed to hit a wall in the seventh. He became just the seventh Sox starter to go six or more innings this month, a much-needed deep start for a team that has overused its bullpen.
"I got away with some pitches early and I didn't get away with them later on," said Beckett after the game.
The Sox haven't gotten away with much lately. Beckett and Jon Lester are a combined 1-3 in their last four starts. Lester has lost two straight starts against the Rays, and now takes the mound to start the weekend series with the Yankees.
The Sox woke up Thursday morning with a magic number of five and six games left. If they can wrap up their playoff spot in the Bronx, they can start Beckett on Monday in Baltimore and shut Lester down until the playoffs. Lester could oppose Verlander in Game 1 on a full week's rest, and Beckett would go in Game 2 on his regular day.
The only chance the Sox have of doing anything is if they can get seven innings from those two starters, and get the ball to Daniel Bard for the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth. Despite their issues in Tuesday's loss, they are still a solid one-two relief punch that you can depend on late in games.
It's a blueprint that would allow Alfredo Aceves to come in quickly in Game 3. That will be important because the rest of the Boston rotation can't be depended on. Pick your poison: John Lackey, Erik Bedard and Tim Wakefield have had repeated opportunities to help this team down the stretch.
Of course, if this thing keeps dragging on to the final day of the regular season, and Lester has to pitch the finale in Baltimore, that plan to beat the Tigers is out the window. Anything short of a well-rested Lester in Game 1, and Beckett in Game 2, is a recipe for a disaster.
We know disaster when we see it. And we've seen too much of it from this team of late.
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