The Red Sox are currently four games above .500 and have recently been playing some of their best baseball to date. Yet they’re still 6.5 games out of first place, as the New York Yankees have played even better, having gone 19-6 in June.
The days of the Red Sox gaining the wild card and essentially being on the same playing field as the division winning Yankees—save for home field advantage—are gone. Starting in the 2012 postseason, the two wild card teams will face off in a one game playoff, and will then play one of the three division winners.
Not only does this put the wild card teams at a disadvantage because they may lose, but the winning team will most likely have started one of their best pitchers attempting to win that game.
It’s provided the most incentive for teams to win the division in the wild card era.
Now that the Sox can be viewed as legitimate contenders after their lackluster start to the season, it’s time for them to eye the division title as their goal for the season. They’ve survived injuries and down years from top tier all-stars, and their pitching staff has only recently played to their potential. As I detailed in this piece, the fact they stand in contention now is quite a feat.
But that’s not enough.
With Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford set to return soon, the Sox should look to continue their recent success.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the Yankees rotation just got shaken up. CC Sabathia is slated to miss at least two starts with a strained groin, and Andy Pettitte is likely out for two months after taking a liner off his shin yesterday.
They have been two of the best pitchers in the American League this season.
Sabathia has gone 9-3 on the year with a 3.45 ERA, and his 2.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) ranks fourth among AL starters. Pettitte has possibly been even better. The veteran left-hander has a 3.22 ERA in nine starts since coming out of retirement, and is striking out over a batter per inning.
The Yankees have gone 17-7 in games started by those two. Now, they have to replace those starts with the likes of Freddy Garcia and minor leaguer Adam Warren.
Garcia was dreadful as a starter to begin the year, as he gave up 20 runs in 13.2 innings during his first, and only, four starts of the season. As for Warren, he will be making his major league debut when he pitches for the Yankees, and has a 3.86 ERA in AAA ball this season.
With the Yankees' two best pitchers out, it’s time for the Red Sox to shorten the 6.5 game gap. The Sox have shown they’re a team capable of going on runs, and if they are able to hang around within five games or less heading into September, this division is within reach.
Boston has a golden opportunity to diminish the Yankees’ lead. If the Red Sox can continue to play winning baseball, while also incorporating the return of two All-Stars, the rest of the league better watch out come September and October.