Looking back at a sweep and ahead to playoffs

Looking back at a sweep and ahead to playoffs
September 16, 2013, 2:00 pm
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I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. It may have been this weekend’s sweep against the Yankees. Or last week’s two out of three in Tampa. Or maybe we should just give credit to the entire month of September, during which the Red Sox are now 11-3 and outscoring opponents by more than three runs a game.
 
Or maybe it was there all along and we were just too blind to see?
 
But regardless of when it happened, it most definitely happened. The Sox have officially crossed the threshold from an aw-shucks-feel-good-story to a bona-fide-World-Series-contender.
 
By nature, many Sox fans will continue to fear the worst, but at this point even the most diehard pessimist has delayed the arrival of Boston’s inevitable collapse. At the very least, everyone can rest pretty damn easy that, for the first time since 2009, there will be postseason baseball at Fenway.
 
In the meantime, the focus will be on three things.
 
1. Homefield advantage: The Sox magic number to clinch a playoff spot is three games and the magic number to clinch the AL East is four. But right now, the most important number might be 10. That’s the combination of Sox wins and Oakland A’s losses that will give Boston homefield throughout the American League playoffs.
 
With the way Boston’s playing, it’s hard to imagine them letting up, but unlike the Yankees and the Rays, don’t expect Oakland to do the Sox any favors down the stretch. Not only do they boast the same record as the Sox so far in September (11-3) but their remaining schedule couldn’t be much easier — 13 games against the Angels (6), Twins (4) and Mariners (3).
 
Reminder: Either way, the AL champ will have homefield for the World Series, thanks to a sac fly by Jose Bautista, an RBI ground out by JJ Hardy, a pinch-hit ground rule double by Jason Kipnis, and Bud Selig’s commitment to the dumbest rule in professional sports.
 
2. Staying healthy: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have all dealt with nagging injuries down the stretch, and there’s perhaps nothing more important than making sure that they’re all as close to 100 percent as they can be when the postseason gets underway.
 
In Pedroia’s case, it might take locking him up in the clubhouse like Daniel Stern in Rookie of the Year, but it has to happen.
 
In Jacoby Ellsbury’s case, it’s not about staying healthy, but getting healthy.
 
It’s now been 10 days since he was put on the shelf with a compression fracture in his right foot, and last Friday we received word that Ellsbury had shed his walking boot and was cleared to resume exercising (but still only “non-baseball activity”).
 
This is a step in the right direction, but certainly not a big one. I mean, how much lower impact can you get than “baseball activity”? So, basically he’s allowed to walk?
 
Despite his history, there’s still reason to be confident that Ellsbury will be ready to roll for the playoffs. Even if he’s not 100 percent, there’s enough on the line for both he and the team that he’ll play through pain. Especially since he already did it earlier this month, and was extremely effective in doing so.
 
But given his history, it will probably take actually seeing him back out on the field, or least being allowed to work out on the field, before anyone permanent markers (is that a thing?) Ellsbury onto the Sox postseason line-up card.
 
3. Figuring out and lining up the playoff rotation: Who does John Farrell want on the mound in the playoffs?
 
It’s a good problem to have, but for the next few weeks, it’s up to Farrell to not only decide which guys will make up his playoff rotation, but which order he wants them to appear. And then, he needs to start adjusting the regular season rotation so that those guys can take the postseason hill under optimum rest.
 
For what it’s worth, my ALDS rotation goes like this (there’s an explanation later in the column):
 
1. Lester
2. Buchholz
3. Lackey
4. Peavy
 
OK, so that’s looking ahead.
 
Looking back, and in honor of the AL East magic number, here are four quick reflections on an insanely entertaining weekend at Fenway.
 
THE BEARD PHENOMENON
While I can’t pinpoint exactly when the Sox crossed the contender threshold, I think we’ll remember this weekend as the moment when the Red Sox beards transitioned from budding cult phenomenon to the unrivaled identity of the 2013 team.
 
John Tomase had a cool story in this weekend’s Boston Herald about the origins of the beards. Basically, it started with Johnny Gomes showing up to Spring Training with some sweet facelocks. Mike Napoli was jealous and started growing is own, and then harassed David Ross until he joined in on the fun.
 
These days, every player who can have one, does. Now, every existing beard has a nickname. You can see the full list here.
 
And this is just the beginning. You know that the organization is going to market the hell out of this thing. Dr. Charles must be foaming at the mouth. But the good news is that unlike most of the stuff that the Sox jam down the fanbase’s throat, this one’s actually kind of cool. It’s something that the players actually believe in and are passionate about.
 
The one piece of front office involvement that I can definitely get behind is this? JOHN HENRY NEEDS TO GROW A BEARD.
 
RANKING RIVERA’S PARTING GIFTS
As you know by now, this weekend was most likely Mariano Rivera’s last trip to Fenway Park in a Yankees uniform. In a perfect world, it won’t be. In a perfect world, the Yankees will somehow eke out the last Wild Card spot, win the play-in game, shock the Tigers in the ALDS and then come to Fenway for the ALCS. At which point, the Sox can pick up where they left off in the regular season (they’re the first team to win 13 games against the Yankees in one season since the 1974 Orioles), and cruise into the World Series.
 
But obviously that’s a long shot, and the more likely truth is that Rivera will never again grace the mound at Fenway. For that reason, it’s a shame that he didn’t grace the mound this weekend. Joe Girardi could have at least thrown him out there for one inning. Even if it wasn’t about his last trip to Fenway, you figure it makes sense just to keep your closer’s arm loose down the stretch. But, whatever. Mo’s trip to Boston wasn’t a complete waste. As you also know, the Sox celebrated his final “appearance” with a pre-game ceremony in which he was awarded five gifts.
 
Here’s a quick worst-to-first ranking of the goodies Mo took home
 
5. The pitching rubber from the visitors’ bullpen.
 
This just feels like the Sox already had four decent gift ideas, wanted to make it five, and were like “Ah, what the hell? Give him the bullpen rubber.”
 
What’s Mo going to do with a big hunk of rubber? Does he really have that much of a connection with the bullpen at Fenway?
 
Even money says that a maid at the Four Seasons found this gift hidden under the bed in Rivera’s room this morning.
 
4. The No. 42 placard from the Fenway scoreboard, signed by the entire Red Sox team.
 
This had the potential to rank No. 1, if not for the signatures. You know what I mean? Just a big 42 placard would have really cool. Very subtle. A gift that perfectly combines the history of Fenway and a number that will live on as one of the signatures of Rivera’s career. I could see him hanging that placard in any room of the house.
 
But it doesn’t have the same effect when it features autographs from Quentin Berry and Ruby De La Rosa.
 
3. An original Fenway Park seat inscribed with No. 42.
 
The big problem with this gift is where to display it. You can’t hang a metal seat on the wall. And it’s weird to have it just sitting on the floor.
 
Idea: Given the size of the original seats at Fenway, it could make a cool high chair for Rivera’s first grandchild. Especially since Mo probably won’t care if ends up covered in vomit.
 
2. A Mariano Rivera portrait from Opening Day 2005
 
That was Rivera’s first appearance at Fenway after blowing Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, when the fans gave him a standing ovation and he gave the crowd a big wave and a smile.
 
This portrait captures both the wave and the smile, and even though this moment is representative of one the lowlights of Rivera’s career, it was pretty well done.
 
1. An undisclosed donation from the Red Sox Foundation to Rivera’s charity
 
Who knows how much they gave him? Maybe $42,000?
 
As long as it wasn’t $42, this was classy move by the Sox, and one that Rivera appreciates far more than anything else.
 
THE YEAR OF NAVA
If the Sox were going to collapse this month, it would have happened right after September 5 when Ellsbury was ruled out indefinitely. Instead, they’ve gone 7-2 in nine games without their lead-off hitter, and one of the biggest reasons is Daniel Nava.
 
His performance was obviously highlighted by last night’s 4-5 showing against the Yankees, but this is nothing new. For the month, Nava’s hitting .386 with a 1.040 OPS. That’s about on par with his overall numbers since the All-Star break (.358/.962) but the difference now is that he’s back to doing it every day. And doing it when it matters most.
 
It will be interesting to see what happens when Ellsbury does make it back for the playoffs. You figure it will come down to either Nava or Jonny Gomes in left field, and right now, Nava has made a strong case to be in the line-up every night. Even against lefties. Either way, Nava’s reemergence only adds to the depth of this team. And whether or not he plays every night in the post season, he’ll find a way to make an impact.
 
GIVE LESTER THE BALL
The term “ace” is overused. Just because you’re the best pitcher on a give staff, it doesn’t make you an “ace,” And when you’ve got a rotation like the Sox do right now, I don’t think the label is even necessary. Who cares who the “ace” of this staff is? They’ve got four guys who can get it done.
 
But Jon Lester’s performance on Saturday — eight innings, three hits, one earned run — cemented his status as the go-to-guy on this team; as the dude you want with the ball when everything’s on the line.
 
Disagree? That’s cool. The beauty of this situation is that there isn’t a clear number one. But right now, Lester’s the closest to sure thing.
 
Even if “The Sure Thing” is also the name of John Lackey’s beard.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine