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Red Sox can afford a respite

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 19, 2011 10:09 AM

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Production fades as injuries mount, all as the schedule steadily dwindles. For the Red Sox, the only relevant question is whether any of these factors are a precursor to potential problems in October.

Or whether, as they have been for much of this season, they are merely lapses that inevitably take place over the course of a 162-game schedule.

The Red Sox claimed a much-needed victory with a 4-3 decision over the Kansas City Royals last night, though little else changed in what have become the dog days of Boston’s otherwise methodical march to the postseason. Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list. David Ortiz is out with a heel problem. Adrian Gonzalez is tussling with a stiff neck, the effects of which might be limiting his power and might have, under different circumstances, forced him to the bench.

But with the Red Sox limping along through the middle of August, manager Terry Francona has little choice but to keep running Gonzalez out there.

“If there were ever a chance we could give him a couple of days off, we’d probably do it,” manager Terry Francona told reporters recently, “but it’s not the time to do it right now.”

Translation: We’re banged up enough as it is.

All of this brings us back to the first 115 games of this season, a period during which the Red Sox went 72-43, a pace that would produce 101 wins over the course of a 162-game schedule and built a double-stuffing lead in the American League playoff race. The margin means something to them now. The Sox are now in the wonderful position of being able to rest (or disable) players they might otherwise have been unable to, a significant argument who believe that the first four-and-half months of the regular season actually mean something.

When you what the Red Sox have done through the large chunk of this year, you scan step under the shade of an old oak and wipe your brow. You might even be able to take a little nap.

The potential playoff matchup, the choice between Texas or, say, Detroit? There will be time to decide that. If the Red Sox are ragged come October, after all, that will hardly help their chances. For those who are legitimately concerned about the events of the last week or so, you should prepare yourselves now for the reality that the Red Sox will continue to build in physical (and mental) breaks for other players on their roster.

Example: Josh Beckett could probably use a break soon, at least if his past is any kind of prelude. (His ERA over the last four starts is 4.06.) Beckett is on pace for roughly 207 innings, the second-highest total of his career, and both he and the Red Sox would likely benefit from trimming that number down by a start or two. John Lackey and Erik Bedard might similarly need some maintenance in the final weeks, as may Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.

Over the last eight or nine years, after all, the Red Sox have handled their players with the idea of playing deep into October, a reality that could add as many as 19 games to their schedule. The Sox put a great deal on the shoulders of Papelbon in the fall of 2008 and they are likely to do so again this time around. Ditto for Bard. In the postseason, using that pair for three combined innings, instead of two, is a legitimate option.

But in order for that to happen, the Red Sox must start protecting them now, particularly when they have a lead as comfortable as the one they possess.

If you’re looking for a precedent for this 2011 Red Sox club, look no further than 2007, the year of the Sox’ last World Series title. Having lead the division for much of the season, the Sox started sputtering in August, going an extremely mediocre 14-13 over their final 27 games of that month. Their problems even extended into September, the Red Sox still plodding along with a 24-21 record over a 45-game stretch entering the final 10 days.

Once there, the Red Sox started fine-tuning things again, finishing with 96 victories before posting an 11-3 record in the postseason.

Will this club do the same? Obviously, that is impossible to say. But given the history of this organization, we can state with some certainty that some of the Red Sox’ recent issues are by design. They are giving players time off because they can. And whether we like it or not, the Sox are willing to sacrifice the division now just as they were in 2007, if only because their goal is to win championships, not playoff rounds.

So what if they face Texas in the first round as opposed to the second? If the Sox can’t beat the Rangers, whenever it is, they’re not going to win the World Series. That’s their story, anyway. And they’re sticking to it.

Beginning last night, the Red Sox had precisely 40 games remaining in this season, a number that effectively translates into about 25 percent of their schedule. If the Sox go 20-20 during that span, they will finish with 94 wins and, presumably, the AL wildcard berth. That kind of regular season would be a disappointment amid all that talk of a 100-win season, but it would be quickly forgotten if the Red Sox won another World Series.

Or would you rather them win 100 games now and lose in the first round later?

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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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