I’m tempted to say, with no qualifier, that the Red Sox will make the playoffs. But this is baseball, and crazy stuff happens, right?
No. Not this crazy.
The Rays were nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 3. No team ever has rallied from that far back in September to secure a postseason berth.
Yet, with 13 games left, the Rays are not done.
They reduced their wild-card deficit to three games on Thursday night by trouncing the Sox, 9-2. They will tie the Sox if they win the next three at Fenway Park, including the matchup Saturday on MLB on FOX (4 p.m. ET).
So, why not believe?
Because a win by the Red Sox in Josh Beckett’s return on Friday night will calm everything down, and a split of this four-game series will all but suffocate the Rays.
Seven of the Red Sox’s final 10 games are against the last-place Orioles. Seven of the Rays’ final 10 are against the first-place Yankees. You look at this rationally, and you think, “No way.”
Still, the mind plays evil tricks during a pennant race — and the Angels, now just four games behind the Red Sox, could further complicate the wild-card derby.
None other than the Sox’s David Ortiz already has declared, “Hell, yeah, you’ve got to panic.” Papi’s view is, uh, extreme, but even if the Sox reach the postseason, how long will they last?
The Tigers, their likely first-round opponent, are the hottest team in baseball, winners of 22 of their past 27 games. It’s unreasonable to expect the Tigers to continue playing at this level: If they win the World Series, they essentially will have dominated for eight straight weeks. Yet, the Red Sox sure don’t look capable of stopping Detroit, much less any other club.
The Sox have lost seven of eight, nine of 11, and 11 of 14 in September. Their rotation ERA this month is 6.82. Their middle-inning relief is a mess. And now their setup man, right-hander Daniel Bard, is struggling.
Meanwhile, several of the Sox’s regulars are ailing.
Designated hitter Ortiz (back) and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (calf) returned to the lineup Thursday night, and third baseman Kevin Youkilis continued to play through a hernia and hip injury.
A scout who covered the game said that Youkilis was “beat up bad” and “shouldn’t be out there.” Sox manager Terry Francona said afterward that Youkilis would not play on Friday night.
“You don’t see anyone trying to shut it down,” Ortiz said. “We know we need to win some games. That’s why you see myself and others playing through injuries. We know we’re running out of time.”
So do the Rays, but their players are younger, healthier, looser — and even with a suspect bullpen, the team is on pace to allow the fewest runs by an AL club since the 1992 Brewers.
Indeed, the contrast in starting pitching between these teams is stunning, considering that the Sox’s $162 million payroll to start the season was nearly four times higher than the Rays’ measly $41 million mark.
The Rays’ rotation leads the league in innings and ERA. The Sox are 12th in innings and ninth in ERA, and the injuries to Beckett, right-hander Clay Buchholz and lefty Erik Bedard are only so much of an excuse. With as much as money as the Sox spend on amateur talent, they should be developing better young pitching.
On Thursday night, the Rays got 5-2/3 gutty innings from Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson, who threw 74 pitches in the first three innings. The Red Sox countered with their own rookie, right-hander Kyle Weiland, who is not nearly as advanced as Hellickson and never will be.
Weiland caught a bad break in the third inning on an RBI single by B.J. Upton in which the ball and the barrel of a broken bat went through Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro’s legs simultaneously. But the pitcher allowed a three-run homer to his next batter, Evan Longoria, and the game was never the same.
“You’re always looking for signs. You’re looking for signs from that baseball heaven, the baseball gods,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Upton’s hit. “They’ve got to throw you a sign once in a while, give you something to further the belief.”
The Rays are taking the same approach as every underdog in baseball history, trying to stave off elimination one day at a time. Designated hitter Johnny Damon knows the feeling well — he was part of the 2004 Red Sox team that rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit in the ALCS against the Yankees. But even Damon conceded that the Rays “definitely have an uphill climb,” noting the team’s remaining schedule and saying the AL East was “almost comparable to the SEC.”
Well, if Red Sox-Yankees is Alabama-Auburn, what does that make this weekend? Alabama-LSU?
Thursday’s game was the one the Red Sox figured to lose. Beckett will make his first start in 11 days on Friday. The Sox’s other ace, lefty Jon Lester, will pitch Saturday, followed by knuckleballer Tim Wakefield on Sunday.
The Rays will counter with righties James Shields and Jeff Niemann and lefty David Price. The matchups appear to favor the Sox in only one game — Lester vs. Niemann — but is even that safe to say? Lester lasted only four innings against the Rays this past Sunday.
It’s the time of year when one game can raise false hope and the next one can restore harsh reality.
Reality is coming. The Red Sox will make the playoffs.