Maybe this is all you need to know about the determination on Yawkey Way to overtake the Yankees in the American League East: Nearly a month before the regular season ends, Red Sox starters were told to prepare to wage an all-out effort in the four-game series that ends the season in Baltimore.
Barring a division-clinching blitz before then or a collapse that drops them out of contention, Sox starters can expect no rest before the playoffs. No five-inning tuneups. No easing into a wild-card berth.
Forget about veteran righthander Pedro Astacio making a spot start against the Orioles in a day-night doubleheader Oct. 2, the day before the regular season ends. If the Sox remain in contention for their first division title since 1995, they plan to send Curt Schilling and Bronson Arroyo to the mound on regular rest in the twin bill. If the race goes down to the final day, the fortunes of a hopeful fandom will rise or fall with Derek Lowe.
Manager Terry Francona helped position Lowe for the moment when, rather than dump the struggling sinkerballer into the bullpen just before the All-Star break, he strongly advised Lowe that the Sox needed him to help them get where they wanted to go. And thanks to their 30-10 sprint since Aug. 1, they are within reach of the division title as they enter the final turn with a 20-game stretch against the Devil Rays, Yankees, and Orioles.
The fun begins tonight with the opener of a three-game set against Tampa Bay at Fenway Park.
"This stretch has put us in a good situation," Lowe said. "We were half-dead at one point as far as catching the Yankees and we were just hoping to make the playoffs. Not anymore."
Through no fault of Lowe, who surrendered two runs over seven innings, the Sox made things harder on themselves by stumbling Sunday in a 2-0 loss to the Mariners and slipping 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees. The deficit, now at three games after New York's blowout loss last night, leaves the Sox little margin for error in their final six games against the Pinstripers (three this weekend in the Bronx and three more Sept. 24-26 in Boston).
Otherwise, they need to defend their lead in the wild card, which is 4 1/2 games over the Angels.
"All we can do is take care of the business at hand, winning the baseball game we're playing," said Mike Timlin, who has insisted since the dark days of early summer that the division is winnable. "We can't help whoever's playing the Yankees. We can only root for them." Make no mistake, the Sox have the Yankees -- and the home-field advantage throughout the postseason -- in their crosshairs. General manager Theo Epstein built the Sox to fit their quirky home, where they have chewed up the opposition, going 49-22. They have won 12 of their last 15 on the road to improve to 37-34 while living out of their suitcases, but they recognize the value of playing at home.
So there will be plenty at stake when Arroyo, Lowe, and Pedro Martinez take on the Yankees this weekend, though their teammates plan to refrain from obsessing over the Steinbrenner Nine.
"It would be great to catch them, but the goal is to get to the playoffs and just play good baseball," Trot Nixon said. "If you start focusing on what [the Yankees] are doing every day, then you're going to lose focus on what you're doing. That's not good. Most of the guys on this team are smart enough and have been through enough Yankee rivalries to understand that it's part of the game, but they're not going to be stupid about it."
The Sox have matched up nicely against the Yankees, going 8-5 while holding them to a .240 batting average, the second-lowest among Boston opponents to Tampa Bay's .224.
"As long we take care of ourselves and stop looking over our shoulders, we'll be fine," Johnny Damon said. "We have some big games coming up and we plan to take care of business."
For all the concern about the Yankees, the Sox are keenly aware of the danger of getting ambushed by the Rays and Orioles. The Rays get the first crack tonight when they start rookie lefthander Scott Kazmir, who will try to lower Boston's record against rookie pitchers they had yet to face to 0-6. The Sox counter with Martinez, who is 11-2 with a 1.66 ERA in his career against Tampa Bay.
In going 10-3 against the Rays this year, the Sox have outscored them, 103-42, and have taken seven of the last eight games at home. The Sox hope Tim Wakefield, who starts tomorrow against rookie righthander Dewon Brazelton, can keep it rolling after going 0-2 while allowing 15 runs (10 earned) over 10 2/3 innings in his last two starts. Schilling will have plenty of incentive Thursday in the series finale as he goes for his 20th win and tries to avenge his only loss of the season at Fenway (an 8-3 defeat Aug. 9 to the Rays).
While the Rays have foundered against the Sox, no team has fared better against Francona's crew than the Orioles, who are 7-4 and have hit for a better average (.293) against Boston than any team but the Angels (.320).
"I think it's a huge advantage to win the East, and I know we face [the Yankees] six times in the next 20 games," Doug Mirabelli said. "But to be honest, the team that really sticks in the back of my head is Baltimore. That team gives us fits.
"We're going to be ready for New York and we can't help be excited for those games. It seems like we handle our business against them, even if it goes back and forth. But it's the other games that I think are really going to [determine] the East, not necessarily those six against the Yankees."
Good thing Lowe has been pitching more effectively and confidently than he has all year. The season could end with Boston's division hopes in his hands.