COMMENTARY | With just nine games remaining over the next week and change and a Magic Number of three to win the AL East, the Boston Red Sox can start to look ahead to the playoffs. Getting there was just the first step, and it should become official in the next day or two, but now the real work begins.
The AL Wildcard is anything but decided with six teams still within 2 and a half games of a postseason slot. And as the St. Louis Cardinals proved just two years ago, once you're in, anything can happen. The Red Sox cannot take their opponents lightly, should they claim the AL's top seed.
Season Series: 12-7
Last Postseason Series: 2008 ALCS (Rays in 7)
The Rays boast one of the youngest pitching staffs in all of baseball. But will that inexperience hold up in October? David Price was just getting his feet wet the last time the two teams met in the postseason, getting shellacked in Game 2 before rebounding for a Game 7 save. Since then he's gone on to three All-Star games, winning one Cy Young in 2012 and nearly another two years prior. At 28, he's the elder statesman in the rotation with Roberto Hernandez moving to the bullpen.
But Boston's pitchers have been equally impressive, posting near-identical ERAs and opponent averages while going deeper into games. All things even, experience usually wins out.
The two teams have played some feisty games this year, with June 10th's 14-inning affair being the most memorable. Just a handful of Red Sox remain from the 2008 team, but should the two find themselves in another playoff series, intensity could be high.
Season Series: 2-4
Last Postseason Series: Never
Fading fast, the Rangers are attempting to hold on to a Wild Card spot with everything they've got. They've gone on a Red Sox-esque September slide: 3-12 this month with closer Joe Nathan blowing a save in a crucial game against the Rays on Wednesday.
IF the Rangers make the playoffs, and that's a huge IF at this point, how much will they have left? Would they have the stamina to win potentially two winner-take-all match-ups and then put forth a fight in their first series? No team is a pushover at this stage, but the Rangers, IF they make it, could be one of the easier opponents.
Luckily for Texas, they do have a soft homestand against the Astros and Angels to round out the year. That is, if they survive their upcoming trip to Kansas City.
Season Series: 6-1
Last Playoff Series: 2007 ALCS (Red Sox in 7)
Once seemingly forgotten about, Terry Francona's Indians have charged back to enter the Wild Card conversation. As cold as the Rangers are, the Indians might be the opposite. They're 10-6 in the MLB's final month and have what amounts to a cupcake schedule down the stretch: the three worst teams in the AL.
Though they will be unable to control their own destiny, it's hard to imagine they'll be left out should they take care of business.
The Indians don't excel at any one area, sitting outside the Top 5 of the AL in most statistical categories, but they do have one of the best managers in the game. And as any Red Sox fan can tell you, Francona's teams are no easy out in October.
Season Series: 6-9 (four games to go)
Last Playoff Series: Never
Last year, the Orioles made the postseason for the first time since 1997. The going has been a little tougher this year, but not against the Red Sox. They have been Boston's kryptonite all year long, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
While, on paper, the Orioles don't appear to be that threatening, they may be the one team the Red Sox don't watch to match up with. Manny Machado has been especially dangerous; 3 of his 14 home runs have come against the Sox and his average soars from .286 to .344 against Boston.
Buck Showalter's young team has been to the postseason, nearly taking a series against the Yankees a year ago. Now they have the experience and are looking for more.
Season Series: 2-5
Last Postseason Series: Never
Like the Orioles, the Royals are enjoying some of their first success in a long time. They haven't made the postseason since winning it all in 1985, but that doesn't mean a Cinderella run of sorts is out of the question.
Kansas City's bullpen is one of the best in baseball. From the 7th inning on, their ERA is nearly half a run better than anyone else's. Once they get a lead, they tend to keep it. Their offensive firepower might leave something to be desired, however. Just one regular starter is hitting over .300.
Their upcoming series against the Rangers could be an elimination series of sorts. Neither team can afford to lose with so many still in contention for the Wild Card. A good showing will go a long way in their quest to return to the postseason. Trips to Seattle and Chicago round out the season.
Season Series: 13-6
Last Postseason Series: 2004 ALCS (Red Sox in 7)
How the Yankees remain in contention is anybody's guess. The amount of injuries and age they've suffered to still be where they are is truly remarkable.
Much can be made of Alex Rodriguez's continued eligibility while he appeals his lengthy suspension, but he's not single-handily winning games. Since returning, Alfonso Soriano has put the team on his back, hitting almost as many home runs in New York as he did in Chicago--in about half the plate appearances.
The Yankees still have an uphill battle to climb, however. Though they've only lost 3 games to teams other than the Red Sox this month, they still have a series against the Rays, whom they are 7-9 against this year.
Another Yankees/Red Sox matchup would be fun, but it would take a miracle for them to make it that far.
Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7.
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