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September 20, 2007

Finishing 1st Not The Most Important Thing For Bosox?

From the Providence Journal -

Are the advantages of finishing first so overwhelming that it’s worth a pedal-to-the-metal push to make sure it happens, consequences be damned?

History tells us no. It’s not that finishing first wouldn’t be a good thing, or that there are no benefits. But if the choice is finishing first or making sure players are as healthy as they can be / pitching rotation is in order / bullpen usage is set heading into the postseason, it’s obvious [Terry] Francona — and, presumably, the Red Sox’ brass — feels the latter outweighs the former.

Start with the assumption that the Sox are a lock for the postseason. Barring a never-before-seen collapse, that’s true. Their magic number for clinching a playoff spot is three. They should have their ticket to the dance punched before the weekend is over.

In that light, Francona’s decisions become more understandable. Were the season actually on the line, Coco Crisp would probably have started last night. Kevin Youkilis might have. David Ortiz wouldn’t be getting a day off tomorrow in Tampa Bay, as he’s been promised. Even Manny Ramirez might feel a tad more urgency to get back into the lineup, though trying to guess along with Manny Ramirez is truly a fool’s errand.

Some, however, feel the season is on the line. The Red Sox have led the A.L. East — and by an overwhelming margin most of the way — since late April. Losing the division title — and to the Yankees — would make the whole thing a failure to these folks, wild card or no wild card. The time for rest is over, they say. Get out there now.But to what end? All of these players — and more that we don’t know of, probably — are hurting. Playing through pain is an admirable trait as far as sports fans are concerned, but it’s not conducive to healing. If time off now means they’ll be healthier, even if just a little bit, in two weeks when the playoffs start, is that a fair trade?

Francona thinks it is.

What you surrender when you play it like this is short-term success, which may cost the Sox the division championship. It probably won’t — they’re still in good shape as the season nears the wire — but it could. What that means, in concrete terms, is that it would also cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs.

But go back to Page C1. Check the chart in the top righthand corner.

In 2006, the teams without home-field advantage won six of the seven postseason series. According to ESPN, teams with the home-field edge have won only 54 percent of the time since the playoff system was instituted in 1969. And we don’t have to recite the list of wild-card teams — ’06 Cardinals, ’04 Red Sox, ’03 Marlins, ’02 Angels, ’97 Marlins — that have won the World Series, do we?

The Sox’ position: The advantage of that extra home game won’t mean anything if the team isn’t in the best possible condition to play it. So they’ve made it clear through their actions that getting their team into the best possible condition — and not necessarily finishing ahead of the Yankees — is their first priority. Maybe you agree with that, maybe you don’t. If you’re a Red Sox fan and there’s an insufferable Yankee follower crowing in your ear about a typical Boston collapse, you definitely don’t.

It doesn’t matter. That’s the path they’ve chosen.

I dunno. As of this morning, the Red Sox have spent 141 days in first place. They had a lead as large as 11 1/2 games as recent as July 5th. You can spin this all you want - in terms of looking at the bigger picture, etc. - but, there's got to be some mental and/or emotional price to pay for being in first this long and once having a lead that large and not being able to seal the deal in the end.

Sure, the Tigers limped home last year and made it to the World Series. So, I see the point that it's how you play and October and not how you finish the season. But, the Tigers had something happen to them in the ALDS - Leyland using the way the rain situation was handled for the scheduled second game to pump-up his team, followed by their comeback in Game 2 when it was played, and then having their fans go crazy in Game 3 when Kenny Rogers pitched out of his mind. (Having to face Jaret Wright in Game 4 didn't hurt either.)

When you crawl into the post-season, you're going to need something to restart your engine for the big race. Can the Red Sox count on something igniting them in the ALDS if they blow the A.L. East title?

Yes, they can count on it. But, it doesn't mean that it's going to happen.

Posted by Steve Lombardi at September 20, 2007 09:42 AM

Comments

If any team needs a "boost" to get up for the postseason, they're probably in the wrong profession.

The Sox are getting their ducks in a row for the playoffs; that's what they claim, that's what I'd have to believe.

Posted by: Raf [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 10:45 AM

It's the way the RS have lost lately -- Okajima, Paplebon & Gagne losing the games. Now's not the time for the BP to lose confidence.

Posted by: rbj [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 10:58 AM

I'd like to think the Sox are dead, but as Steve brings up, I saw the Tigers get smoked by the Royals last season on the last weekend and licked my chops. D'oh!

Anyway, the only way I'll be happy winning the East is if they win the Series as well. I suppose if the Yanks win the East and the Sox flame out as well, it would be a tiny, very small consolation, but other than that it does nothing for me.

Posted by: JeremyM [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 11:06 AM

I'm enjoying the panic in Beantown as much as the next Yankee fan, but I think the idea of momentum carrying over from regular to post-season is the stuff of fairy tales and unicorns. Didn't the Yankees limp into the playoffs in 2000? How much did that matter? I don't think it matters at all...unless we can say that Boston is finally playing more to its talent level, which could be true if you check their second half stats. Now THAT I believe could be happening. Oki and Dice-K might be solved/tired, Paps less so but still maybe, Gagne's all but unusable in the postseason at this point. I love that this article tries to make the point that the fearsome Coco Crisp would've been in the lineup if they were really "trying." I'm sure A.J. Burnett said, "OOoooh Coco Crisp is sitting! Now I have a chance!" The Sox are still a good team, but how good has been an open question since they were 14 1/2 up.

Posted by: festus [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 11:15 AM

On the flipside of the above, I'm also not convinced that all the "resting" of key regular players does all that much good in terms of the postseason. Players get thrown off their game very easily, and this strategy seems to backfire at least as much as it succeeds. Is Manny's timing going to be perfect when he comes back (he seems to get off to a slow start every year). I actually wouldn't mind seeing some hard data on what resting does for a team in the postseason.

Posted by: festus [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 11:25 AM

FWIW, the Sox not finishing first does matter to some fans of the team:

http://tinyurl.com/2g33v7

Posted by: Steve Lombardi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 11:55 AM

And, here's another Sox fan, not happy:

http://tinyurl.com/2eswwz

Posted by: Steve Lombardi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 11:56 AM

And, another: http://tinyurl.com/36bdm7

Posted by: Steve Lombardi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 12:00 PM

Tito brought Papelbon into the game in the 8th inning last night with the bases loaded. That, more than anything, shows that they do in fact have a sense of urgency to win the division/stop the slide. For them to say otherwise is disingenuous. Yes they want to have their pitchers lined up and rested for the playoffs, but there is no way I buy that they don't care. Preparing for the postseason doesn't have to mean allowing the team to slack off or lose games. Manny and Youk are our b/c they are hurt, not because they are resting up. Dice-k and Okajima are out b/c they are tired from being abused all season.

I think it works both ways. Obviously a great start in game one by Beckett goes a long way towards positive momentum, but on the other hand, so does having to play the Angels in California, where they are unbeatable...

Posted by: Zack [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 12:06 PM

Do you think the Yankees are going to full out to win the division? I don't. I believe that Clemens is making his last start of the season Sunday, I would be very surprised to see him pitch the next Saturday (the second to last game of the season). I am also pretty sure that players like Jeter, Matsui, etc. will be rested as well.

Posted by: bluke [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 12:11 PM

I think the Yankees should play full-out to win the division because they play so well at home. The idea that the Sox don't care if they lose the division is bull. If they don't care, they're fools. Losing the division after holding the lead the entire year is a collapse -- why wouldn't that bother you? If the roles were reversed, I'd certainly be bothered by it.

Zack brings up Matsuzaka and Okajima...

Isn't it funny how there was all this talk about how Japanese pitchers finish their own games and regularly throw 130 pitches (which is true) and they didn't need pitch-count like our babied starters, etc.? And now Dice-K needs to rest because his arm is going to fall off. It's amazing that with all their micromanaging, the Sox bought into Matsuzaka's expanded pitch count, letting him throw over 100 pitches regularly, but never took into account the shorter Japanese season and his previous highs in innings (or the fact that he's pitching more often now). I guess Francona should have listened to Scott Boras when he said to go a bit easier on his pitcher...

Posted by: baileywalk [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 12:22 PM

FWIW, the Sox not finishing first does matter to some fans of the team:
========
I have a feeling that Francona & Co. don't care a whit about what the fans think.

Zack: Francona also left Gagne in when he clearly had nothing. That says something too.

Posted by: Raf [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 02:34 PM