BOSTON — A year ago, the team that lost the World Series in seven games was the team everyone wanted to play. The team everyone thought would make for a quick KO.
Certainly, the Red Sox wanted the Indians. The Sox got ‘em in the Division Series, and subsequently got their clocks cleaned.
But that was the sentiment within the organization at the time: we hope we get the Indians.
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The Indians were hurting. Michael Brantley was out. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were both down too. Longtime Indians beat writer Paul Haynes famously wrote the Indians off before the playoffs even began.
It’s no mystery why the Indians were viewed that way, or why they ended up excelling. Any team that makes it has a chance.
But the Red Sox are wearing Cleveland's shoes now, or will be, barring a Yankees takeover of the division title. The Red Sox will be the team everyone wants to play as October begins.
If you’re the Astros, if you’re the Indians, you’re scared straight by Chris Sale. (Well, maybe not the Indians, who have knocked Sale around.) But that’s about it.
The Sox offense simply is outmanned. Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds entering Sunday had the Red Sox with the lowest chance to win the World Series, 5.2 percent, of any current division leader — and with even lesser odds than two second-place teams, the Yankees (7.8 percent) and Diamondbacks (5.8) percent.
Maybe the Sox would do well to realize how people look at them.
You’ve probably noticed Sox pointing at their wrists after some hits. Christian Vazquez has done it. Jackie Bradley Jr. too. The reference, to the Apple Watch sign-stealing scandal, is obvious. (And it might not be the best idea, to mock rule-breaking before a punishment is handed down.)
But this is a Sox team that does seem keen to play with a chip on its shoulder. David Price has embodied that all year long. Dustin Pedroia has some bite too.
“Nothing bothers me, man,” Pedroia said when asked if the sign-stealing allegations bother him. “Like you know, playing in this environment you kind of have to have thick skin and turn the page on whatever is being said because a lot of it is just talk and that's it. I mean, you just go play."
Thick skin is great, but the Sox can also channel some negative energy. Pedroia's not in a bubble. None of them are. Pedroia was also well aware of what photos were circulating of him and teammates — like Doug Fister with his mouthguard around his ear — in relation to that sign-stealing scandal.
There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the Sox this year, externally and at times internally as well. The Sox are still in first place. They’re still the American League East leader.
But the facts do work against them.
Their on-base percentage entering Sunday, .333, was a point lower than the Twins, who are fighting to hold on to the second Wild Card in the American League. Their slugging percentage, .408, was the fifth worst in baseball, and the worst in the AL.
The pitching is great, with the fourth best ERA in the majors, at 3.70. The Indians are better, at 3.44. The Astros, with the best offense in the majors in terms of runs scored per game (5.54), still have above league average pitching, with a 4.24 ERA — and some healthy starters who just returned. The Indians offense produces more runs per game (5.06) than the Sox' (4.79).
David Price might come back. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts might bust out. They can turn heads quickly. But the Red Sox are poised to enter the playoffs as the team no one believes in. Or at least, as the team the fewest believe in.
The Indians proved that's not necessarily the worst position to be in.
"I think we have enough players where we can win," Terry Francona said on Oct. 13, 2016, before the Championship Series began. "We're going to have to play very good baseball. Your margin for error is a little bit less when guys get hurt. So you hope you don't make errors."