The Red Sox have advanced to the postseason 10 times since 2003 and won four World Series along the way. But one experience the franchise has so far missed is the wild-card game.
Major League Baseball tweaked the postseason format to add a second wild card in 2012 and a one-game playoff. Ten of the 15 teams in the American League have played in the game at least once. The Sox have never come close; they have won the division four times since 2012 and finished well out of contention otherwise.
This season, it’s wild card or go home. The Sox are eight games behind first-place Tampa Bay with 14 games remaining, none against the Rays.
But at 83-65, they are fighting with the Blue Jays (82-64) and Yankees (82-65) to move on. The Athletics and Mariners are also in contention, but both are long shots.
The American League wild-card game is scheduled for Oct. 5. The winner advances to a best-of-five Division Series starting Oct. 7 at the home field of the highest seed. That is likely to be the Rays, which would be good news for the Red Sox if they got that far. The Sox were 8-11 against the Rays this season, but were outscored by only two runs. They were 2-5 against the Astros and were outscored by 17.
But that’s for later. For now, here some factors to keep an eye on the final 17 days of the season:
The Sox expect to activate Chris Sale and Matt Barnes off the COVID-19 injured list before Friday night’s game against Baltimore.
Sale was 3-0 with a 2.52 earned run average in five starts before he tested positive. The Sox were 4-1 in those games. Barnes was an All-Star closer who had a terrible August, allowing 10 earned runs on 12 hits over 6⅔ innings. He hasn’t pitched in a major league game since Aug. 29, and the time seems to have served him well.
Barnes pitched in a minor league game on Wednesday and said afterward it was by far the best he’s felt on the mound in a month.
Outside of infielder Christian Arroyo, the other players remaining on the COVID-19 injured list — Jonathan Araúz, Jarren Duran, Yairo Muñoz, Danny Santana, and Phillips Valdez — have been marginal contributors.
Arroyo, who was “hit hard” by Covid symptoms according to manager Alex Cora, started a minor league rehab assignment with Triple A Worcester on Thursday. He could be ready next week and would give the team another option at second base.
The Sox have been fine with José Iglesias, who is 9 for 20 with four RBIs in nine games since being signed as a free agent on Sept. 6 and has played well defensively. But Iglesias is not eligible for the playoff roster, so getting Arroyo back up to speed will be important.
The Sox have 14 games remaining. The Yankees have 15, and the Blue Jays 16.
One or two fewer games may not seem like much, but the remaining three days off will allow the Sox to get the most out of their pitchers.
They can use Sale and Nate Eovaldi a combined seven times on normal rest, with Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez positioned to cover six games. That would allow No. 5 starter Tanner Houck to be a relief pitcher, a role well-suited for his fastball/slider combination.
The Sox have an advantage here. Based on the standings through Thursday, they have one series remaining against a team with a winning record — the Yankees, starting Sept. 24 for three games at Fenway Park.
They play the Orioles and Nationals nine times. Six of those games come on the road to end the season.
The Blue Jays also have a weak schedule, with 10 of their final 16 games against teams with a losing record. The Yankees have the toughest schedule, with nine games left against winning teams.
The Sox have eight games left at Fenway Park, where they are 44-29. Attendance has been down this season — only two sellouts at full capacity, the last on June 26 — but Cora said Wednesday he expected the team will get a boost from its fans. We’ll see.
The Yankees play nine of their final 15 at home, and the Jays nine of 16. Toronto is 19-8 at home since returning to Rogers Centre.
The Sox have been a poor defensive team for much of the season, in particular the last few weeks. They have allowed an astonishing 19 unearned runs in the last nine games.
The Blue Jays are concerned about José Berríos, who left his start Tuesday with abdominal tightness. He is 4-3 with a 3.31 ERA in nine starts since being obtained from the Twins.
The Yankees are unstable defensively, taking Gleyber Torres off shortstop and playing him at second base. Now DJ LeMahieu is at third and Gio Urshela is at short.