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Red Sox and division is fuzzy math

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 8, 2008 09:04 AM

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Before we begin, ask yourself this: If the Red Sox ultimately are willing to sacrifice the division title, how truly important is this series against Tampa Bay?

Freed from the dreaded shackles of Manny Ramirez, fortified for the stretch run and playing arguably their best baseball of the season, the Red Sox return home tonight for a three-game series against the team directly in front of them in the American League East. At first glance, it might seem like a battle for the ages. The Sox and Rays will play six times in the next 10 days -- three in Boston, three in St. Petersburg -- and the division title very well may be decided by the middle of next week.

Assuming it means anything.

Here at Morrissey Boulevard, we know what you're thinking: Bite your tongue. The Red Sox have the best home record in baseball at the moment and have heretofore played four series against the Rays this season. All four have ended with a sweep by the home team. In the six games at Fenway Park, the Red Sox have outscored the Rays, 45-16. In the six games at Tropicana Field, the Rays have outscored the Red Sox, 25-16. Since the start of the Theo Epstein Era, no team in baseball has a better home record than your beloved Red Sox, who have a home winning percentage of .655 while averaging precisely six runs per game.

Fittingly, at Fenway tonight, the Sox will set a major league record for consecutive home sellouts, a streak that has taken place entirely during this era of domestic invincibility.

Yet, at the end of the day, we cannot help but wonder how much home field advantage really means to them, let alone you.

Remember: We live in a high-speed age of cell phones, mobile devices, text messaging and e-mail. Everyone and everything operates with a relentless immediacy, and the entire world frequently feels overwhelmed. Rather than prioritizing our schedules, we are encouraged to schedule our priorities in the never-ending blitz of personal, professional, and social obligations.

So what does that have to do with the Red Sox?

Stop for a moment and ask:

What are their ultimate objectives?

What are their priorities?

Four years ago, when the Sox won what might as well have been the first world title in their history -- the revolutionary 2004 championship ended decades of hardball tyranny -- they did so with an astonishing run during which went they went 34-12 over the final 46 regular-season games. At one point, the Sox wiped out nearly all of what was a 10½-game deficit to the division-leading New York Yankees as late as Aug. 15, moving within 2½ games of the Yankees after a victory at New York on Sept. 17.

Shortly thereafter, with the AL wild card spot firmly in their grasp, the Sox called off the dogs and started getting their house in order for the playoffs. The team clinched a playoff spot with roughly a week to go in the season -- catching the Yankees was still a possibility, albeit a relatively remote one -- and yet the Sox made their overall health and state of mind a priority over a division title.

In the first round of the playoffs, despite opening on the road, they swept the Angels in three games.

As for the championship season of 2007, the opposite happened. The Sox had a 7-game lead over the Yankees as late as Sept. 4. With a playoff spot firmly in grasp, Sox manager Terry Francona began the process of preparing his roster for the postseason (much like Angels manager Mike Scioscia has been doing this month) and putting an obvious emphasis on October. By Sept. 19, the Yankees were 1½ games out of first place -- a mere one game out in the loss column -- and forever-scarred Sox followers were in a full-fledged panic.

As it turned out, the Sox held on and won the division, partly because the Yankees did precisely what the Red Sox did. In the final month, then-Yankees skipper Joe Torre put an emphasis on October. Torre began lining up his pitching and resting his regulars, all because he believed it would give his team a better chance to win (at home or on the road) in the playoffs.

Given all of those realities, ask yourself this: How much is the division title really worth relative to health and stability? If the Red Sox were within, say, one game of the Rays entering the final weekend of the season, would Francona be wise to employ starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka in hopes of securing the division? Or would he be wise to rest them? How much sense does it make to cram for the final exams on the last weekend of the season when the Sox have had more than five months to prepare for the test?

In major league baseball, qualifying for the playoffs is a pass-fail proposition. Finishing with a B+ or an A- is just as effective as finishing with an A if you have a need to expend your energy elsewhere.

Does all of this mean that a division title is worthless? Of course not, though even the concept of home field advantage is debatable at this time of year. For all of the Red Sox' struggles on the road this season, they are 15-7 in their last 22 road games. When the Sox last played Tampa, they did not have Jason Bay, Paul Byrd, or Mark Kotsay, among others. The Rays were a different team, too. For that matter, so were the Angels, Twins, and White Sox, all of whom remain in the thick of playoff contention.

The teams, and games, are different now.

And they'll be even more different next month.

Entering this allegedly climactic stretch of games with the Rays, the Red Sox have 20 games to play and a whopping 6½ game lead (seven in the loss column) over the Twins in the AL wild card race. A playoff spot is firmly within Boston's grasp. Regardless of whether the Sox beat out the exorcised Rays -- may the Devil be gone -- the priority is to get Beckett up to full speed, Lester rested, Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell back into the flow. If that means losing the division title in the process, so be it. The Sox are no longer in the business of worshipping false gods.

A division title?

Sure it would be nice.

But the Red Sox are in the business of winning championships now, and there will be no parades on our fair city streets for winning the American League East.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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