This week and last have been unfamiliar luxuries for a franchise that customarily has been dashing to the wire at the end of September. Somebody else — usually the Yankees — ordinarily has wrapped up the American League East, leaving the Red Sox to chase a wild-card ticket. This time, Boston clinched the division crown, only its second since 1995, with seven games to play, allowing more than ample time for rest, recharging, and reflection before the playoffs begin.
“The four days off between the last day of the season and the first day of the playoffs, it’s unique from what our experiences have been,” said manager John Farrell, whose refashioned and redeemed ball club makes its first postseason appearance in four years Friday night against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park.
The free time, after two off days during the previous week, made it necessary for the Sox to schedule a Wednesday intrasquad game that was reminiscent of the old Peskys-vs.-Yosts duels at Chain O’Lakes Park, just to stay sharp.
It also provided talk-show fodder for debates about the playoff rotation. Hasn’t Jon Lester earned the right to start the opener? Should Clay Buchholz get the nod for Game 2 ahead of the remade John Lackey? Should Jake Peavy, who has one more Cy Young Award than the others combined, start Game 4? What if the Sox drop two of the first three games? Would you bring back Lester on three days’ rest?
“You always look at, OK, what are our strengths and what makes the most sense to us regardless of who we might play?” said Farrell, who was Boston’s pitching coach during successive postseason appearances in 2007, ’08, and ’09. “And that’s the only thing that we can control.”
Arranging a shortened rotation to obtain the optimum matchup against an opponent in a best-of-five series is an imprecise undertaking even when the rival is known days in advance. But once the one-game playoff between the two wild-card clubs was introduced last year, it increased the variables sufficiently to make mixing-and-matching all but useless.
When the Sox clinched the division by beating Toronto Sept. 20, eight other clubs still were alive for the AL playoffs: Tampa Bay, Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, and Texas. Heading into the final weekend, the Rays, Indians, and Rangers all were jousting for the wild-card berths.
So planning ahead had too many what-ifs to make it worthwhile. What was more useful, reckoned Farrell, was “evaluating ourselves versus evaluating the opponent — what makes most sense to us — and then scheduling accordingly.”
What was obvious was that it was decidedly better to face the wild-card survivor than a similarly rested divisional victor, and better to play a fifth game in the Fens, where the Sox went 53-28 this year. So it was essential that Boston finish with the best record to avoid facing pitching-rich Detroit or traveling to Oakland, where the Sox have long struggled in the postseason.
So Farrell’s task during the season’s final fortnight was to win as many games as possible while giving his pitchers both adequate work and rest.
“With the four off-days, everyone will have sufficient rest, so the focus becomes how do we maximize the final 10 days of the season, having two of those days off?” he mused. “We may have a situation where a pitcher goes longer than normal with rest. That might cause us to take a look at a guy who’s started all year long. We may get him a couple of innings in relief just to keep him fresh rather than pitching him on 10 days.”
Options can be scarce
While keeping their rotation basically in synch, the Sox were able to make sure that Lackey, who’d been victimized by anemic run support for much of the season, had two more starts for a chance to even his record and that Buchholz could gradually increase his workload. The soundest approach to the postseason is not to mess with the horses who got you there, which was the philosophy when Farrell was working with Terry Francona.
“In so many conversations with Tito, every effort was made to keep guys on a consistent routine,” said Farrell. “That’s what made them the best performers, so we didn’t look to alter things so much in large part because we didn’t have the four days off. We just rolled right into a divisional playoff. That’s what makes this format very different.”
The addition of a second wild-card team has made it more likely that the race won’t be decided until the final weekend, which gives skippers few options for starters. The challenge of simply making the playoffs crowds out any other concerns.
“If you’re left standing on the last day of the season . . . ,” said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, whose club was tied with New York for the AL East lead with three games to play last year but ended up facing the Rangers in a one-game death match.
“I’d much rather get in than have our best pitcher pitching the first game of the playoffs. That’s pretty easy. We were thinking about getting in and then seeing how many options we had to start. We felt like Joe Saunders was our best option.”
Saunders was 0-6 lifetime with a 9.38 ERA in Arlington, Texas, but he held down the Rangers for the better part of six innings and the Orioles earned a divisional date with the Yankees, whom they pushed to the limit despite starting two rookie pitchers in Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez.
“Our No. 1 starter is the guy who’s pitching that day,” Showalter likes to say.
For clubs that get to October on fumes with an exhausted staff after playing a string of must-win games, they usually have no alternative but to use the best man available, whoever he may be.
When Tampa Bay dropped two of its final three games at Toronto this season, leaving the Rays to face Texas in Monday’s playoff, manager Joe Maddon went with David Price even though he had beaten the Rangers only once in 11 career starts and was 0-3 against them in the postseason.
Price not only was next man up in the rotation, he was the reigning Cy Young winner and as a rookie had closed out the Red Sox in the seventh game to get his mates into the 2008 World Series. Price squelched Texas and the Rays lived to play another day.
The fourth starter
Even for clubs that clinch a playoff berth with plenty of time to spare, as the Yankees did in 2004, settling on a rotation can be a last-minute enterprise. That year, manager Joe Torre not only didn’t know on the eve of the Division Series with Minnesota whether or not Orlando Hernandez would be his Game 3 starter, he couldn’t say whether he’d be on the playoff roster at all, given El Duque’s tired arm.
Torre ended up going with Kevin Brown, who’d busted his left hand a month earlier punching a clubhouse wall after being pulled amid a losing effort, then watched Javier Vazquez close out the series the next day.
More often than not, managers haven’t had to use a fourth starter in a best-of-five. In the 108 series since baseball adopted a league playoff format in 1969, 40 have been sweeps and only 33 went the distance. Of Boston’s 10 five-game series since 1975, only four have gone to a fourth game and only once have the Sox tapped their opening starter to pitch it. That was in 2008 when there was a day off after each of the first two games and Francona could come back with Lester to close out the Angels.
History shows that using a starter on three days’ rest backfires twice as often as it works. Even when the Sox’ backs were to the wall in the 2003 Division Series, after they dropped the first two games in Oakland, they resisted the temptation to bring back Pedro Martinez to save the season in Game 4 at Fenway. Grady Little went with John Burkett, while A’s manager Ken Macha opted to bring back ace Tim Hudson, who strained his oblique muscle in the first inning. Boston won on David Ortiz’s two-run double in the eighth and Martinez came back to beat the Athletics on their own turf in the finale when Macha used Barry Zito on short rest for the first time in his career.
“Are pitchers best when they’re rested? The answer to that is yes,” said Farrell.
Are four starters better than three? Almost always, they are. What makes this October different from others hereabouts is that the town team has a solid quartet that could have spent a week at the beach in between assignments.
That’s the way it used to be in the Bronx. It’s the biggest perk of wrapping up a division early.
Horse-poweredThe Red Sox had the luxury of resting some starting pitchers down the stretch, but that also left them with just one player — Jon Lester — who reached 30 starts. The last five World Series winners had no fewer than four 30-game starters, and no championship team has had fewer than two since the playoffs expanded in 1995, excluding the ’95 Braves, who had four pitchers make at least 28 starts in a 144-game season.
5 Tim Lincecum (33), Matt Cain (32), Barry Zito (32), Madison Bumgarner (32), Ryan Vogelsong (31)
4 Chris Carpenter (34), Jake Westbrook (33), Jaime Garcia (32), Kyle Lohse (30)
4 Tim Lincecum (33), Matt Cain (33), Jonathan Sanchez (33), Barry Zito (33)
4 CC Sabathia (34), A.J. Burnett (33), Andy Pettitte (32), Joba Chamberlain (31)
4 Jamie Moyer (33), Cole Hamels (33), Kyle Kendrick (30), Brett Myers (30)
2007 Red Sox
3 Daisuke Matsuzaka (32), Tim Wakefield (31), Josh Beckett (30)
3 Jason Marquis (33), Chris Carpenter (32), Jeff Suppan (32)
2005 White Sox
4 Mark Buehrle (33), Freddy Garcia (33), Jon Garland (32), Jose Contreras (32)
2004 Red Sox
4 Pedro Martinez (33), Derek Lowe (33), Curt Schilling (32), Tim Wakefield (30)
2 Brad Penny (32), Carl Pavano (32)
3 Jarrod Washburn (32), Ramon Ortiz (32), Kevin Appier (32)
2 Curt Schilling (35), Randy Johnson (34)
2 Andy Pettitte (32), Roger Clemens (32)
4 Orlando Hernandez (33), David Cone (31), Andy Pettitte (31), Roger Clemens (30)
3 Andy Pettitte (32), David Cone (31), David Wells (30)
2 Kevin Brown (33), Alex Fernandez (32)
3 Andy Pettitte (34), Kenny Rogers (30), Jimmy Key (30)
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.