DENVER — Once you make it — and the Red Sox have done that — there’s the game you play of “which team would you rather face in the divisional round?”
Want to face one of those wild-card teams (currently Tampa Bay and Cleveland) or Detroit?
Those appear to be the options as the Red Sox begin a two-game series with the Colorado Rockies Tuesday followed by an off day and three games in Baltimore to conclude the regular season.
Texas is one game out of a wild-card spot, so it also could face the Red Sox, who currently own a one-game lead over Oakland for the best record in the American League.
If the A’s should overtake Boston, the Red Sox would play the Tigers.
So which is the best team to face?
“If I were the Red Sox, I’d go for the Indians,” said an American League special assignment scout. “With [Justin] Masterson injured, the Red Sox can hit the other guys. Ubaldo [Jimenez] is tough when he’s on, but I think Boston’s pitching can shut down Cleveland’s offense.
“The team I wouldn’t want to face if I were them is Tampa Bay. I know they have a good record against them, but [David] Price, [Matt] Moore, [Alex] Cobb, [Chris] Archer can shut you down at any time.”
If you go by past success, the Sox’ 6-1 mark against Terry Francona’s Indians would certainly qualify as dominating. Of course, Francona returning against his old team would be the most newsworthy and exciting angle, the matchup most people would love to see.
Quite frankly, it’s been an amazing story for the Indians, a team that doesn’t seem to match up talent-wise with the other playoff-possible teams. They may get their ace Masterson (oblique) back for the playoffs, but otherwise the Indians have to rely on Jimenez (12-9, 3.39), veteran lefty Scott Kazmir (9-9, 4.14), and youngsters Corey Kluber (10-5, 3.61), Zach McAllister (9-9, 3.88), and Danny Salazar (1-3, 3.09).
The Indians rank ninth of 15 AL teams in batting average and seventh in ERA. Boston hit .271 with a .767 OPS against the Indians. The Boston staff also had 64 strikeouts in 63 innings .
Because Masterson is coming back from an oblique injury, there is thought to leaving him in the bullpen, where he could pitch an inning or two at a time.
“I’m just excited to get back in a game,” Masterson told the Cleveland media. “However that comes, that one-inning situation, whatever it may be, critical or noncritical. Just getting back in the game, get the feet wet for this playoff run, and then hopefully a playoff run, that would be pretty exciting.”
Masterson, who served as a swingman for the Red Sox in 2008-09, went 14-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 189⅓ innings this season (29 starts), but in a Sept. 2 outing against the Orioles, he left after facing five batters when he strained his left oblique.
The question is, does he have enough time to build back up to being a starter after missing three weeks? The answer could very well be no, leaving the Indians with having to use him in short appearances in the bullpen.
“We’re having a lot of fun in this,” Francona said. “We come to the ballpark, we know we have to win every game. It’s exciting and I think our players think it’s exciting and they’re responding to it.”
The Red Sox also dominated their season series vs. the Rays, 12-7, but there were moments when the Rays looked good against them.
While living an up-and-down existence through the season, the Rays were simply a poor team hitting with runners in scoring position against the Red Sox. They hit .232 overall against Boston, with only a .312 OBP and a .676 OPS.
On the mound, the Rays pose a tough task for the Red Sox with Price (2-2, 2.48, in five starts vs. Boston), Moore, Archer (0-2, 5.19, vs. Boston) and Cobb, but at one point or another, the Sox have solved all of them except for Moore, who is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA.
The Rangers are 4-2 against the Red Sox, but those games were played much earlier in the schedule, concluded by early June. Texas has really struggled in the second half (31-30 since the break and 6-15 in September) and is fighting for its playoff life.
The Rangers still have tough starters in Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Matt Garza to contend with if they should get hot the next few games and make it. They would also get Nelson Cruz back for the playoffs after a 50-game PED suspension.
The Rangers have hit .358 against Boston with 10 homers and 26 RBIs in the six games, but the Red Sox may not have to worry about them getting in.
The Tigers have won more than they’ve lost vs. Boston (4-3), but the Red Sox have managed to score 43 runs in seven games. The Detroit pitching staff has a 6.05 ERA against Boston (part of that was a 20-4 thrashing Sept. 4), while the Tiger offense is hitting .282 with six homers and 32 RBIs.
The Tigers are also a bit banged up, with Miguel Cabrera battling assorted injuries over the past month that have really quieted his production. Jose Iglesias has been in and out of the lineup with shin splints limiting his agility and the latest problem a bruised left hand. The Tigers will also have PED-suspended Jhonny Peralta back for the postseason. If Iglesias is limited, Peralta may be back at shortstop, but the plan now is to play him in left field.
The Tigers, who rank first in the AL with a team batting average of .286 (11 points better than Boston), can still throw Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez at you, which is tough.
The Royals, Orioles, and Yankees are long shots, so we won’t even go there.
“The Red Sox could win the World Series,” said our special assignment scout. “I’ve seen a lot of baseball this year and the Red Sox don’t have any problems matching up with anyone, including the Dodgers even if they didn’t face [Clayton] Kershaw [in the regular-season series]. They would be the one team I’d say could challenge Kershaw with their deep lineup and platoons and lefthanded hitters who can hit lefties.”
So there you go. Cleveland seems to be the team to play. Be careful about Tampa Bay. If things collapse for the Sox over the last five games and they have to play Detroit, at least they have the confidence of their 20-4 win and the fact that Cabrera is ailing.
Sizing them up
Chances are, the Red Sox will face one of four teams in the American League Division Series: the Indians, Rays, Rangers, or Tigers. A breakdown of the strengths and key players of each team:
Record vs. Sox: 1-6
Strength: Depth in rotation
The Indians could have as many as five starters with double-digit wins. Depth is not a problem.
Key player: Justin Masterson, SP
The team’s ace, recovering from an oblique injury, remains a question mark for the postseason. Could return in a bullpen role.
Tampa Bay Rays
Record vs. Sox: 7-12
Strength: Youth in rotation
David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer are all 27 or younger with an ERA under 4.00.
Key player: Evan Longoria, 3B
The Ray’s lone power threat, with 20 home runs in five of his six seasons and eight homers in 98 postseason at-bats.
Record vs. Sox: 4-2
Strength: Tough on the road
The Rangers have a 45-36 record away from Arlington, giving them the most road wins in the American League.
Key player: Adrian Beltre, 3B
The team’s only everyday player batting over .300, Beltre is trying for his fourth straight 100-RBI season.
Record vs. Sox: 4-3
Strength: Deep lineup
Veteran-laden lineup (featuring Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez) leads the American League in average and total hits.
Key player: Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Last season’s Triple Crown winner remains the game’s best hitter, en route to his third straight batting title.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.