At this point of the baseball season, we're now looking for favorites to emerge. Those who may have been in tight division races are beginning to assert themselves over the competition. Just making the playoffs isn't necessarily enough for these clubs anymore. We're thinking about what they could do in the postseason.
Of course, the September surprise can still happen. An upstart whose playoff chances look dismal can rally to beat out a team that had a seemingly comfortable, insurmountable lead. We're only two years removed from the Cardinals overcoming the Braves and the Rays surging past the Red Sox on what was surely the best final day of the season ever seen.
The chances of that happening this year, unfortunately, appear pretty slim. The Nationals still have a shot at the NL's second wild-card bid, but the Reds don't look as if they'll collapse. In the AL, the Tigers can't quite pull away from the Indians and maybe a soft September schedule gives the Tribe a chance. The Yankees might end up giving us the real suspense in the AL playoff race as they gain on the Rays.
But after winning two of three from the Tigers this week at Fenway Park, it's the Red Sox who are now taking on the look of a favorite. This three-game series had the trappings of a playoff preview, with both Detroit and Boston ranking among the AL's best clubs all season. Yet with the way the Red Sox won the last two games of the series — first winning a pitching duel on Tuesday, then absolutely mauling the Tigers on Wednesday — should we be viewing this team as the best in the AL right now?
It's easy to overreact after a 20-4 victory, naturally. The Red Sox looked unstoppable, crushing a Detroit club that many regard as the best team in MLB. Eight home runs, 19 hits and 20 runs? That was annihilation. That was a steam roller turning the Tigers into a rug.
However, it should probably be pointed out that Boston did this to the soft underbelly of the Detroit pitching staff.
Rick Porcello is the Tigers' fifth starter and had a 4.29 ERA in August. Al Alburquerque — who served up the grand slam to Will Middlebrooks that broke Wednesday's game open — would probably be in the minors if Triple-A Toledo was still playing. As it is, his spot on Detroit's postseason roster is very questionable. Jeremy Bonderman, whom the Mariners designated for assignment earlier this year, is a mop-up guy at this stage of his career.
Yet look at what the Red Sox have done over the past couple of weeks.
The Dodgers are perceived by many as the best team in the NL and a World Series contender. Boston won two of three from them at Chavez Ravine. The Orioles still had aspirations of challenging for the AL East lead before losing two of three in their most recent series versus the Red Sox. And now, Boston won a three-game set against the Tigers.
The Red Sox hold a 5.5 game lead over the Rays in their division. Baseball Prospectus currently has their chances of making the playoffs at 99.6 percent. They now have the best run differential in MLB at +154. (Winning a game by 16 runs surely helped with that.)
Boston has to contend with the Yankees, Rays and Orioles through the rest of September. Each of those clubs needs every win it can get with a playoff bid on the line.
Many of us throughout the rest of the country may roll our eyes when a series between the Yanks and Red Sox is treated as if it's the most important event in the sport. But this weekend's four-game set is rather significant, considering what's at stake for the Yankees and the Red Sox holding a comfortable, but not insurmountable, first-place lead.
A division title thus shouldn't necessarily be viewed as a certainty for the Red Sox. But a return to the postseason after a three-year absence looks assured.
Last year at this time, Boston was 63-75, one game from last place in the AL East. The roster was gutted after that salary-dump blockbuster trade with the Dodgers. David Ortiz — who notched his 2,000th hit on Wednesday — was out for the rest of the season with an Achilles tendon injury. Bobby Valentine was a fired manager walking, counting down the days toward an inevitable dismissal.
This kind of turnaround didn't seem possible, especially in just one season. Not after what appeared to be a lackluster offseason, with signing Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino as free agents. Not with John Lackey being counted on as a top-three starter following a return from Tommy John surgery. Not with a bullpen that had uncertainty at closer between Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan. And surely not with the Orioles emerging as a contender in the division and the Blue Jays looking like offseason champions after their big trades.
Can the Red Sox not only win their division, but make a deep postseason run?
They have the ace a team needs in October. Jon Lester looked like a No. 1 starter again in Tuesday's victory over Detroit, holding the Tigers to one run over seven innings. He racked up nine strikeouts and didn't walk anyone. In his past nine starts, Lester has allowed two runs or fewer in seven of those appearances.
They have the closer that can shut down the opposition at the end of a ballgame. Koji Uehara hasn't allowed an earned run in 26 consecutive appearances, spanning all of July and August. In save situations, he has an 0.85 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 31.2 innings, a rate of 14.2 Ks per nine.
Does Boston have a dominant offensive threat in their lineup? Believe it or not, that guy might be Victorino. The outfielder who was a questionable signing over the winter hit .328 with a .970 OPS with eight doubles, seven home runs and 22 RBI in August. Middlebrooks is imposing himself as a threat too, posting a slash average of .322/.406/.475 last month and is off to a torrid start in September. Just ask Alburquerque, who threw a pretty good pitch — a 93 mph fastball low and in — yet Middlebrooks cranked it out for a grand slam.
Are the Red Sox now the best team in the AL, and perhaps MLB? The Tigers will surely have something to say about that with a healthy Miguel Cabrera in their lineup and the back end of their pitching staff being less of a factor in the postseason. The Rays, Yankees, Orioles and Rangers could each present a challenge as well.
But perhaps the Oakland Athletics are the team Boston should worry about the most.
The A's have the third-best run differential in the league at +82. Last week, they won three of four in Detroit. Oakland followed that up with a three-game sweep of the Rays. And in a dogfight for the AL West lead and the top wild-card spot, the A's won two of three from the Rangers. Other than one more series versus Texas, the rest of their September schedule looks pretty smooth with the Astros, Twins and Mariners lined up.
Before the season began, would you have predicted the Red Sox and A's as the two clubs to watch most closely in September? Yet that's how the AL appears to be shaking out during the final weeks of the season. And just in case you're wondering, Boston and Oakland split their season series this year, 3-3.