At the start of the month, the Red Sox might have viewed the season-ending series in Baltimore — against an Orioles team on its way to its sixth straight 90-loss season — as little more than a low-pressure postseason tuneup. They could rest their everyday players, lift their starting pitchers after five or so stay-sharp innings, focus their attention on which bullpen arm or bench player to keep on the 25-man postseason roster.
But now, the Red Sox are in no position to coast, and even the Orioles look scary. Playing a September schedule in which nearly every game has been against a playoff team or playoff hopeful, the Orioles are 13-12 for the month, including successive series wins against the Angels, Rays and Red Sox during a stretch when all three were desperate for wins.
The two AL Division Series begin Friday (with the NL starting a day later), and both the Red Sox and Braves hope to have their No. 1 starters (Jon Lester and Tim Hudson, respectively) pitching those games. But if either team is still fighting to stay alive on Wednesday, they would have to sacrifice their aces in the regular season finale.
Ugly finishes don’t preclude playoff teams from winning it all. Should the Red Sox and/or Braves get in, they can take comfort in the recent examples of the 1997 Florida Marlins (12-17 in September, with seven losses in their final nine games), the 2000 Yankees (13-18 in September, with seven straight losses to end the season) and 2006 Cardinals (12-17 in September, with nine losses in their final 12 games) — all of whom went on to to win the World Series.
“I think when we get into the playoffs, whoever we play better watch out,’’ Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told reporters on Saturday, “because we’re going to go in being the underdogs.”
Gonzalez is right about the “underdogs” part, because at this point no one would dare pick this Red Sox team — the consensus preseason pick as World Series champs — to win it all. But he might have been better served saying “if” the Red Sox get in, instead of “when.”