Wild card or American League East division winner. In the Red Sox' last two World Series appearances, their road to baseball's championship showdown made scant difference. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004 as the AL wild card and bestowed the same ignominy on the Colorado Rockies last season as the AL East division winners.
They secured their fifth playoff berth in six seasons on Tuesday night, sewing up at least the AL wild card, and the division title remains a possibility. The wild-card berth was certainly not a deterrent to the Sox' first World Series title in 86 years in 2004, but to a man, the players will tell you the division title is what they really want.
At this writing, the Sox' have four games left and their opponent could be the White Sox or Twins, depending upon who wins the AL Central -- or, more likely, the Angels. If the Sox win the division, they will play the AL Central winner. If they go in as the wild card, they will play the Angels. The only team the Sox are certain not to play in the first round is Tampa Bay, because the wild-card team does not play the winner from its own division in the first round.
Against the Angels -- the only team in the AL with a winning record on the road -- the Sox are 1-8 this season, including 0-3 in Anaheim in the first series after the All-Star break. Starting pitchers were a combined 0-6, with three no-decisions, a cumulative 6.97 ERA and just one quality start, by Justin Masterson in his major league debut April 24 at Fenway. He allowed just one earned run over six innings. (Granted, the Angels caught the Sox at Fenway in April when a bug was working its way through the clubhouse, forcing manager Terry Francona to juggle his starting pitchers for the series.)
Subtracting the games started by Masterson, who will not start in the playoffs; Clay Buchholz, sent to Double-A Portland in August; and David Pauley, unlikely to be on the playoff roster, those numbers change to 0-4, one no-decision and a 7.42 ERA. The only pitcher to record a win against the Angels this season? The beleaguered Mike Timlin, in relief in the teams' first meeting, April 22 at Fenway.
Against the White Sox, Boston is 4-3 -- 2-1 at home -- with starting pitchers posting an identical record and a 3.20 ERA. Against the Twins, the Sox are 4-3, including 3-0 at Fenway, while starting pitchers are 2-2, with three no-decisions and a combined 6.46 ERA.
"I don't like their matchup with the Angels and I do like their matchup with the other two," said one major league scout. "The one team I see giving [the Red Sox] fits would be the Angels. I know the White Sox beat [Boston] in Chicago, and the White Sox are awful tough at home, as are the Twins. But the Twins just don't seem to be playing good ball at all.
"Their younger kids seem to be getting a little tired pitching-wise and their bullpen's fading rapidly, whereas the White Sox still have some veterans and they have some power and they can still do some damage. I just think at Fenway, I can't see them having a chance. Whereas the Angels played great all year on the road."
"The Angels, I think, got the best ballclub in baseball," said another major league scout. "They're balanced. They've got good pitching, starting and the bullpen. If you want to go down position by position, overall, I think the Angels got a better ballclub, and pitching is a big part of it. If I were going to bet, I'd bet on the Angels against Boston.
"With the White Sox, I think right now, player for player, I would bet on the Red Sox. And, I think, the Red Sox have a better bullpen than the White Sox. If I'm going to match up, I'd rather have a [Jonathan] Papelbon going for me than a [Bobby] Jenks or anybody else they got.
"The Twins, I don't see how the hell they're even in contention with the club they have. They're breaking down... I don't think Minnesota's going to win that. I think the White Sox will, unless the White Sox completely run out of gas."
Where will the Sox open the ALDS?
If the Sox play the AL Central winner in the first round, the series will likely begin at Fenway because the Sox should have a better record than the AL Central winner. If the Sox are the wild-card team, playing the Angels, they will open in Anaheim.
The Sox finished the regular season 39-42 on the road, just their second losing road record since 1998 (the other: 2006, when they didn't make the postseason). This will be their third time in the playoffs with a losing record, following 1998 (36-45) and 1990 (37-44).
When will the ALDS begin?
As of this writing, that's up to the Angels. The team with the best record in the league gets to pick which of the best-of-five game series it wants to play. The "short" A series would start Oct. 2 and end Oct. 8, with off days scheduled for Oct. 4 and Oct. 7. The "long" B series would start on Oct. 1 and end, if five games are needed, on Oct. 8, with three scheduled off days -- Oct. 2, Oct. 4, and Oct. 7. After the team with the best record is determined and the ALDS matchup is determined, the AL's best team has up to 24 hours to make its choice.
With possibly up to six days remaining before playoff rosters must be finalized -- teams must submit rosters at midnight before the first game -- the Sox have some wiggle room. More important, some players have time to get healthy. Third baseman Mike Lowell has been sidelined with a problematic right hip labrum. J.D. Drew has not played since Aug.17 with an ailing lower back, and although Francona said earlier this week he was not ready to write him off, the time may be drawing near.
Barring injuries, expect the roster to include pitchers Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Paul Byrd, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Papelbon; catchers Jason Varitek, Kevin Cash and David Ross; infielders Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie, Lowell, Sean Casey and Alex Cora; outfielders Jason Bay, Coco Crisp, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Kotsay; and DH David Ortiz. With 24 players, that raises the question: If not Drew, who? Jeff Bailey may be the beneficiary of Drew's postseason absence. In 22 games this season, Bailey, a right-handed hitter, is batting .268, with two home runs and six RBI, although he has more strikeouts (14) than hits (11). He has played first base, left field and right field, and served as the DH.
Let the games begin.
This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports