Boston Red Sox: Six Keys in the American League Pennant Race

Keith TestaCorrespondent IAugust 12, 2010

Boston Red Sox: Six Keys in the American League Pennant Race

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    Tony Massarotti said on the radio in Boston this week that the baseball season, for all intents and purposes, doesn't begin until August 15. The Boston Red Sox are inclined to believe that logic, given that much of what happened leading up to this month has been relatively forgettable.

    A remarkable rash of injuries, silence at the trading deadline, wildly inconsistent performance. And yet, here they stand, just four games out of the Wild Card after taking two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays this week.

    And with August 15 right around the corner and plenty of dates on the calendar remaining with both the division-leading New York Yankees and Wild-Card leading Tampa Bay Rays, somehow, a playoff berth remains within their grasp.

    They still have the toughest uphill climb in the American League East, though, and it isn't going to be easy, especially with Kevin Youkilis gone for the year to a thumb injury in perhaps the most devastating of all the wounds.

    But with August 15 right around the corner and the final six weeks of the season upon us, it's time to dissect just how—and how not—the Red Sox could find their way into the postseason. So here are three reasons why the Red Sox could reach the postseason, and three reasons they may not.

Reason No. 1 the Red Sox Can Make the Playoffs: Clay Buchholz

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    Buchholz has been everything as advertised and then some this season, emerging as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation arm. His last two outings have gone at least eight innings, including one in the Bronx against the hated Yankees, and over the last year or so you could argue he's been Boston's best pitcher. The shakiness and confidence issues of the past are gone, replaced with a quiet swagger that should strike fear in opposing hitters.

    In a year where Josh Beckett has been injured and shaky and John Lackey has been an utter disappointment, the Red Sox needed another ace more than ever. And they found one. He and Jon Lester form a formidable pair atop the rotation, and should guide the staff down the stretch. They could also be potentially deadly in a playoff series.

Reason No. 2 the Red Sox Can Make the Playoffs: Dustin Pedroia

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    The sight of Pedroia on crutches is still enough to send Red Sox fans cowering in the corner. But the diminutive second baseman will be ditching the assistance as early as this weekend for a rehab assignment at Pawtucket in advance of a return to the Sox lineup next week. And it couldn't come at a better time.

    His fire and intensity, sure-handed defense and steady bat near the top of the order are all things the Sox desperately need. And at this point adding Pedroia to the mix is somewhat akin to trading for a perennial All-Star. He could be just the shot in the arm the lineup needs.

Reason No. 3 the Red Sox Can Make the Playoffs: Adrian Beltre

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    Raise your hand if you saw this coming? Please note, class, that even Theo Epstein's arm is still down.

    Nobody knew Beltre would be cranking the ball at a better than .330 clip this late in the season, nor did anyone expect him to be the most consistent hitter in an entirely inconsistent lineup. And yet he's carried the offense at times this year. I keep waiting for the slump to arrive, and it hasn't. And Beltre has a track record of not only staying hot, but staying scorching hot (see his 48 homer season). So there's no reason to believe he'll slow down now.

    Between he and a resurgent David Ortiz, the Sox have a one-two punch in the heart of their order that few expected to produce at all this season.

Reason No. 1 the Red Sox Could Miss the Playoffs: Josh Beckett

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    For everything Buchholz has been, Beckett has not. He's spent most of the season battling injuries and the rest of the year battling inconsistency.

    He's proven to be a big-game pitcher in the past, and the optimist in me says the Sox will still be able to count on him down the stretch, but his performance the other night in New York—when the Sox were desperate for him to play the role of stopper—leaves me slightly less than enthused. He needs to better approximate his old self down the stretch for the Sox to gain a boost.

Reason No. 2 the Red Sox Could Miss the Playoffs: Kevin Youkilis

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    Youk's injury was huge. In fact, it was on these Bleacher Report pages that I all but predicted it would trigger the Red Sox demise. To their credit, the Sox haven't let that happen.

    But imagining a platoon between Mike Lowell and Carlos Delgado down the stretch doesn't inspire a tremendous amount of excitement. Lowell has been playing well, and deserves the opportunity, but he and Delgado would form something of a Retirement Home platoon at first. What do they have between them, two original hips?

    No matter how well Lowell plays, there's no way to replicate Youk's presence in the heart of the lineup, and that's what the Sox will miss most down the stretch.

Reason No. 3 the Red Sox Could Miss the Playoffs: Jonathan Papelbon

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    Papelbon's tremendous meltdown is the last postseason memory for the Red Sox and their fans. And Papelbon has given the Beantown faithful plenty more to have nightmares about this year, blowing six saves already, including a painfully crushing one Thursday afternoon, while looking rather pedestrian in a handful of other outings.

    One thing's for sure: The air of invincibility is gone. And Papelbon needs to be at his sharpest the rest of the way, or so, too, are the Sox chances of making a deep playoff run. With the bullpen in the shape it's in, they need lockdown pitching in the ninth inning, and thus far Paps hasn't provided that, most recently during Thursday's disaster.

    Will he struggle the rest of the way? Your guess is as good as mine.