The Red Sox entered Tuesday night’s game at Fenway Park against the Orioles with the chance to sew up a playoff spot if they won and the Royals beat the Indians.
“I think guys are aware,” Sox manager John Farrell said before the Sox lost, 3-2. “Very much aware.”
It has been four years since the team’s last trip to the postseason; since then, there have been more downs than ups.
But with 92 wins, 32 games over .500, and 146 days atop the American League East, the turnaround has been dramatic.
The Red Sox’ magic number for clinching the AL East is three.
“The beauty is to separate things; they have no control over other than what we do between the lines tonight,” Farrell said. “That’s been the mantra since spring training.”
The Sox have a nine-game lead in a division in which they were largely projected to finish at or near the bottom.
“Everyone back in January, when the moves were made by respective teams, they felt this division was up for grabs,” Farrell said. “And we were of the same mind-set. Injuries and performance directly impacts how things unfold. Am I surprised with the way we’ve played? Not at all.”
Lately the Sox have handled division rivals. In the past two weeks, they’ve taken six of seven from the Yankees and two of three from the Rays, teams fighting for wild-card spots as the season winds down.
The Sox could continue to play a large role in how the wild-card race plays out, with six of their final 11 games against the Orioles, who entered Tuesday night two games behind the Texas Rangers for the final wild-card spot.
“I think it speaks to the strength of this division battling with divisional opponents until end of the month with four of us in position to battle for a playoff spot,” Farrell said. “It’s caused us to remain focused. Can’t take anything for granted. It keeps us accountable to our work and focused on who we’re playing.”
Ahead by 3½ games on the Oakland A’s entering Tuesday night, the Red Sox still have the top seed in the AL in their crosshairs. Farrell said he’ll be strategic about getting players rest.
“Best record obviously gives you home-field advantage in the playoffs once you get there,” Farrell said. “It is a balance. We’ll pick our spots to get guys off their feet as needed. But we also have two additional off days before the season is out.”
If there is a conflict between getting players rest and playing games that could affect the playoff race, Farrell said, “My answer would be consistent with the way we handle every day. We’ll show respect for the game. There’s an integrity we have to uphold and we’ll respect that. The time will indicate where we are when we get there.”
The rotation for the final series of the season next week hasn’t been announced, but Farrell said Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholz all will be available.
“As the rotation plays out over the next three series prior to Baltimore, those are three guys who are going to be available and rested in that series,” Farrell said. “We haven’t mapped it out as to who will start Friday, Saturday, or Sunday then.
“We have to factor in off days next week and potential for those four days off. We don’t want to get guys too far away from a start. What rotation they fall under has yet to be determined.”
Farrell has made a conscious effort to not directly reference the postseason — preferring to call it simply “that time” — and said he hasn’t thought yet about a playoff rotation.
A second thought
Will Middlebrooks took ground balls before the game — just not where you would expect. The third baseman was on the other side of the infield, getting reps at second base.
He has made spot appearances there twice this season — once against the Giants Aug. 21 and once against the Orioles Aug. 27. Should something unexpected — and unlikely — happen to Dustin Pedroia in the postseason, Middlebrooks is an option, Farrell said.
“Will has been the guy we’ve pointed to at second base,” Farrell said. “Depending on how that playoff roster looks, that job is still open.”
Flu-like symptoms forced Middlebrooks to sit out Sunday night’s win over the Yankees, and although he was feeling healthy enough to play Tuesday night, Farrell gave him an extra day’s rest.
“He feels better, as that bug has gone through our clubhouse,” Farrell said. “Today he went through a normal workday. He’s available tonight.”
Craig Breslow entered a tie game with no outs in the eighth and runners on second and third.
“It was a pretty tricky situation,” said Breslow. “At that point I was just trying to get the guys at the plate out. If I could save the runs that’s a bonus.”
Pitching to the heart of the Orioles lineup, Breslow managed to get out of it, getting a pair of groundballs with the infield drawn in, then getting a fly ball to end the inning.
“I put him in a bad spot and he pitched exceptionally in that role,” Farrell said.
The most critical moment was getting slugger Chris Davis, who had already homered (No. 51), to bounce out to shortstop Stephen Drew.
“I challenged him with fastballs, I tried to keep the ball down in the zone and get him to hit the ball on the ground,” Breslow said. “He hit the ball hard, but fortunately it was right at Stephen.”
In his past 28 appearances, Breslow is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA.
Drew swiped two bases, giving him the first multiple steal game of his career. The last Sox shortstop to steal two bases in a game was Julio Lugo in 2007 … Dustin Pedroia’s leadoff homer was the 99th of his career . . . After winning five straight one-run games, the Sox have dropped their past three . . . The Red Sox’s magic number to clinch the AL East is now three . . . Since fracturing his foot, Jacoby Ellsbury has been a ghost in the clubhouse. Not much has been seen or heard from the center fielder. Farrell said Ellsbury is continuing to do the exercises he began last week, but he can’t project when the player will resume baseball activities. Still, Farrell is optimistic about Ellsbury’s return. “That hasn’t changed, our feel or thought is that he’ll be back on the field before the season ends,” Farrell said . . . After throwing a simulated game Tuesday, Felix Doubront will return to the mound this weekend. After struggling in recent weeks, Doubront was given rest so the Sox could insert Buchholz into the rotation. In the final regular-season series at Fenway this weekend against the Blue Jays, Farrell will go with Lester Friday, Doubront Saturday, and Buchholz Sunday . . . With the PawSox wrapping up their season over the weekend, the parent club brought up infielder Brock Holt and pitchers Brayan Villarreal and Steven Wright. The moves bring the active big league roster to 36.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.