It’s so much more than that. It’s about giving yourself the best path to the World Series. The Red Sox still have a chance to do this. And they need to take care of business in Baltimore.
The lovable 2013 Sox are far from done as they prepare for their first playoff appearance in four years. It was a lot of fun watching them clinch a playoff spot at Fenway Park last week and we’ll always chuckle at the sight of Jonny Gomes punting beer cans into the stands after the Sox sewed up the American League East. But there are important games to be played. The final three in Baltimore this weekend are big, even though the Orioles have been eliminated from contention.
After Wednesday night’s 15-5 win over the Rockies, the Sox’ magic number to clinch the best AL record is two.
Finishing ahead of Oakland matters, and not simply because of home field. It matters because the team with the best overall record is going to play a frazzled, tired, pitching-depleted opponent in a best-of-five series starting at home a week from Friday. For the Sox, it means staying home and playing a best-of-five against the Rays, Indians, or Rangers. More important, it means not playing a first-round series against the Detroit Tigers.
The difference is enormous. There are no sure things in playoff competition, but your goal is to put yourself in the best position to advance. If the Sox play the Rays, Indians, or Rangers, they should advance; they will be playing a team that struggles through the final weekend to get into a wild-card game, uses one of its best pitchers to win a wild-card game on Wednesday, then travels to Boston to open a best-of-five at Fenway. The Sox went 6-1 against the Indians this year. They went 12-7 against Tampa Bay. They went 2-4 against Texas, but in September of 2013 the Rangers have looked a little like the Red Sox of September 2011.
We all know that Tampa is capable of shutting down good hitters. The Rays probably will throw David Price on wild-card Wednesday. The Sox, meanwhile, will have Messrs. Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, and Peavy all tanned, rested, and ready to go for the ALDS.
If the Sox finish behind Oakland (Oakland wins a tiebreaker if the A’s and Sox finish tied), Boston forfeits the right to play the wild-card entry and instead plays the Tigers.
The Sox certainly can beat the Tigers, but all of the advantages of playing vs. the wild card are gone if you play Detroit. Like the Red Sox, the Tigers have four very good starters. And like the Red Sox, they are not scuffling toward the finish. They are preparing for a playoff push in orderly fashion. The Tigers also hit a lot more than the Rays.
If the Sox beat Detroit in a first-round series, they most likely would have to play Oakland in the ALCS and the A’s would have home-field advantage. For Boston, that’s two trips to the West Coast, after what no doubt would be an exhausting series against the Tigers.
It is not even close. And that is why the Sox need to stay ahead of the A’s this weekend.
Through the years, the Patriots have been masters of creating the easiest path to the playoffs. Last year all the Patriots had to do to get to the AFC Championship game was beat the fraudulent Houston Texans in Foxborough. New England had beaten the Texans, 42-14, one month earlier. It was a virtual layup into the AFC title game.
Two years ago, the Patriots made it all the way to the Super Bowl. How? They had a bye week, then drew an 8-8 Tim Tebow-quarterbacked Broncos team that had been outscored during the regular season. After drubbing Denver, the Patriots watched the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff miss a 32-yard field goal and waltzed back into the Super Bowl.
The Patriots earned those easy postseasons by taking care of business during the regular season. Nobody does it better. In 2005, the Patriots managed to pave the way by losing. Remember that one? Trailing Miami, 28-26, with no time left in regulation in the final game of the regular season, Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw a potential tying 2-point conversion pass 12 feet over the head of Bam Childress. Why? Because losing that game meant the Patriots would play the beatable Jaguars in the playoffs instead of the surging Pittsburgh Steelers.
The strategy worked. The Patriots demolished the Jags, 28-3. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.
It’s all about taking care of business to make things easy on yourself in the tournament. Getting to the World Series is going to be a lot easier if the Red Sox hold their standing over the A’s this weekend.
The Sox need to beat the Orioles Friday and Saturday. Then Sunday can be a day of rest.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.