Why the Boston Red Sox Shouldn’t Worry About Winning the A.L. East

Dimitri ZagoroffContributor ISeptember 10, 2008

It was one hell of a series.

Edwin Jackson’s first inning butterflies against David Ortiz and Jason Bay made all the difference on Monday, as Jon Lester got his 14th win of the year.

Daisuke Matsuzaka continued his fascination with the unique run-prevention strategy of clogging the bases (someone call Dusty Baker, maybe they can trade him for Volquez and Bruce).

In a perfect scoring universe, Dice-K would have taken the loss—not for the three runs he gave up, but for leaving after only five innings, and ultimately forcing Terry Francona to use Jonathan Papelbon for a third consecutive night.

Tonight was an extra-innings pitchers duel, with each starter giving up only one run and the bullpens combining to let up just six hits over 13-1/3 innings, until Timlin's meltdown.

Andy Sonnanstine mixed his stuff just enough to keep Sox hitters guessing, and Josh Beckett outdid Matsuzaka’s Houdini routine in the fifth, walking the bases loaded before getting out unscathed.

Justin Masterson showed why holds can be just as big as saves, striking out Dioner Navarro with the bases loaded—on a wild pitch that would have brought in the winning run if Navarro had simply let it hit him.

No runs scored from the fourth until the 14th, when Carlos Pena hit a three-run shot to left off the decaying corpse of Mike Timlin, giving Tampa the lead and ultimately the game.

With the pennant in the balance, the intensity level of the season’s best rivalry managed to go up without descending to beanballs and brawls. Marked by great pitching and timely double plays, instant lead changes and lengthy stalemates, these were the type of September games that get your heart rate up in anticipation of the playoffs.

Yes, it was one hell of a series.

And as a Red Sox fan, I’m glad that they lost two out of three.

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t some rant about how things were better in the old days, when the only question was early collapse or heartbreak, and the bandwagon had a lot more leg-room.

No, I like winning. But I still breathed a sigh of relief when Fernando Peréz pulled in Jason Bay’s deep drive to end the eighth. I cheered when first base umpire Ron Kulpa mistakenly called Jacoby Ellsbury out to end the ninth. And I pumped my fist when Alex Cora hit a weak flyball to end the game.

Because I like banners a lot more than I like pennants.

Maybe it’s all the championships in Boston this past decade, or just that the wild card really has diminished the divisional race. But a pennant doesn’t count for much anymore if it doesn’t lead to a title.

And if the Red Sox keep playing hard in pursuit of first place, they may not get anywhere close to the World Series.

Papi’s wrist is hurting.

Papelbon looked gassed blowing Tuesday night’s save.

Kevin Youkilis has been giving 110 percent since March, and the team’s veteran corner infield depth is showing its age, with both Mike Lowell and Sean Casey recovering from injuries.

Jon Lester’s on pace to throw 208 innings—more than 50 over his previous high—through the regular season alone.

Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield were on the DL for half of August.

The ridiculously deep rotation from before the season?

Curt Schilling is long gone, busy paving the way for a transition from pitching to punditry. Bartolo Colon is having trouble throwing all that weight around. Clay Buchholz is dazzling AA hitters—but he only got there after a season-long downward spiral in the big leagues. And Justin Masterson is now too important to the bullpen to be used as a starter.

With Michael Bowden, David Pauley, and Devern Hansack as the alternatives, the Red Sox need to ensure that Beckett and Wakefield are fully healthy, and that Jon Lester gets a rest before October.

Remember last September, when Beckett lost the Cy Young because he rested up while CC Sabathia pitched the Indians to the pennant?

Remember last October, when Sabathia melted down while Beckett pitched the Red Sox to the title?

Did I mention that Papi’s wrist is hurting?

Theo Epstein has stated that the team’s goal is to make the postseason every year. Hopefully he’s also told Francona that it doesn’t matter how. Pennants are nice, but not if it means hollowing out your roster going into the playoffs.

Besides, letting Tampa take first will be good for the economy: Think of all the AL East Champion hats and shirts the Rays would sell. Bostonians don’t buy those, having learned to save their money for World Series gear.

This isn’t going to be easy. The Rays lost their last six before the All-Star break, and they seem to be making a habit of fumbling to the finish with a 3-6 start to September. If the Rays’ woes continue and the Sox find themselves in first or a couple games back, there’ll be plenty of pressure to go for the pennant—and plenty of tired players come October.

The best bet for Boston is to rest up, keep an eye on the Twins and Blue Jays, and forget about Tampa Bay.