Hold tight Red Sox fans. Just when you might have thought it was time to start packing up your Ortiz and Papelbon jerseys for the year and replace them with your Patriots, Bruins or Celtics garb, the Sox have come back to life.
The return last night of Tim Wakefield is the latest evidence that after a summer swoon that saw Boston go from five games ahead in the AL East to as many as seven and a half games back, the Sox are waking just in time to make a playoff push.
In fact, as we approach the final weekend in August, Boston actually has a two and a half game lead in the AL Wild Card race.
Now you remember the Wild Card, right?
Since 1995 when the Wild Card slot first became part of the game, Boston has claimed the extra spot in the playoffs six times, more than any other team in baseball.
In four of those seasons, they advanced to the American League Championship Series. And, of course, in 2004 famously went from Wild Card to World Series as they broke the curse and claimed their first World Series title in 86 years.
It is too early to tell if the 2009 Red Sox can claim the same kind of magic as in 2004, but if they can get healthy and continue to play well entering the playoffs, they may be poised for a long playoff run.
“Remember, the Red Sox were pitching rich at the start of the season,” said former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago, who currently blogs about the team from his home in Tampa. “If they get healthy again anything can happen.”
The performance by Wakefield against the White Sox in his first start in seven weeks was exactly the kind of effort the Red Sox needed.
Displaying the form that had earned him an All-Star spot for the first time in his career, Wakefield gave the Red Sox seven strong innings allowing one run and six hits while walking only one batter.
He left the game with a 2-1 lead, but Chicago tied the game in the eighth inning with a run off of Ramon Ramirez.
Of course, in the end that didn’t really matter as David Ortiz showed that he is getting ready for some late-season magic by blasting a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.
The return of Wakefield and the addition of Billy Wagner could be just the boost the Red Sox need for a pitching staff that has struggled over the last couple months.
“The bullpen was great early on, but you could see the signs that they were having to do too much,” Drago said. “If Wagner can just give them a few good outings it will help ease the pressure.”
For the season, the Red Sox bullpen has an ERA of 3.62, but since the All-Star Game, the bullpen ERA has been 4.07.
In two appearances for the Mets after returning from Tommy John surgery, Wagner did not allow a hit or a run and struck out four batters.
While Jonathan Papelbon is the unquestioned closer for the Red Sox, having a dominating lefty like Wagner coming out of the pen late in games is an added weapon that will be a great luxury for Terry Francona come September and into the playoffs.
If he is fully recovered and healthy, Wagner could give the Red Sox the kind of left-handed weapon that David Price was for the Rays in the postseason a year ago.
For the Red Sox to get to the postseason, they still must take care of business over the final month of the season.
In their final 35 games, the Red Sox will face Tampa Bay, which trails Boston by four games in the Wild Card race, six times. They also have four games remaining with the White Sox, three with the Angels and three with the Yankees. Also on the schedule are six games with Toronto, five with Baltimore, four with Kansas City and then a four game home series to end the season against Cleveland.
While the Red Sox are only 10-11 in their last 21 games against teams in the AL East, Drago points to their 6-1 mark against the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox in August as a sign that the Red Sox can finish strong if they play well against the teams outside of the American League East and then hang tough within the division.
“Boston just needs to make sure they beat the teams they should beat,” Drago said. “Their schedule is not easy, but they play in a division where no game is easy.
“Of course New York and Tampa are tough, but even Toronto and Baltimore have enough offense to make it difficult.”
So, while making up the six game deficit against New York might be out of the realm of possibility for the Red Sox (though certainly not impossible), Boston still has a very good chance of seeing postseason baseball for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
And, as has been proven before, once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen!
This article originally appeared on Boston Sports Then and Now, which is a place where passionate fans of Boston area sports teams can analyze and discuss current sports topics while also remembering some of the great athletes, moments, teams and games in sports history all at one site. If you haven't been there yet, check it out today.