As the morning dew gives way to morning frost and the leaves begin to change colors, it can mean only one thing: October baseball. As a committed Red Sox fan, it’s something that for most of my life I looked forward to with a mixture of excitement, trepidation, and downright fear. It’s different now that the “Curse” has been broken – twice – but it’s still exciting and at times nerve-wracking.
The Red Sox will return to the playoffs in 2008, keeping alive their hopes of repeating as World Champions of baseball. At the moment, they still have a chance to repeat as American League East Division Champions, though with one week left to play, time is not on their side. With the Tampa Bay Rays facing eight games in seven days – all on the road and including a doubleheader – while Boston finishes the season in friendly Fenway Park, hope remains.
A division crown would be a nice cap to what has been an up-and-down season in many respects. It would also provide home field advantage throughout the postseason against anyone except the Los Angeles Angels. That advantage could prove important given the sub-.500 road record compiled by Boston this season, including a dismal set of series at Tropicana Field.
The 2008 edition of the Red Sox has been riddled with injuries, dating back to spring training when it was learned that Curt Schilling would not be a key part of the squad in what can safely – in this case – be called the “twilight” of his career. Today, high-priced starters Julio Lugo, JD Drew, and Mike Lowell all find themselves in pain and out of action. With the possible exception of Lowell, it is likely this group will play no more until 2009.
Despite the challenges, anything can – and usually does – happen in the postseason. Once you get your ticket punched and enter the arena, a whole new mini-season begins. The Red Sox are certainly experienced in this regard, having a roster heavy with veterans of at least one World Series.
Yet this year the balance of rising young stars and wily veterans just doesn’t seem to be quite as compelling as what we saw in 2007. Nor does this unit have the rebellious feel of 2004. Of course, every season takes on a different appearance. After having won two championships this decade, the pressure from fans to win seems much more subdued.
So how will this year’s Red Sox perform when everything is on the line? It’s hard to say. In many respects, this team has yet to be seriously tested. The lead in the wild card race has been comfortable for some time now. While the fight for the division is tight, the pressure to win it simply isn’t there. The Yankees rivalry isn’t even a factor in 2008.
The questions are many. Will Jonathan Papelbon find his mojo and shut down opponents when it counts? Or will he look all too human, with opponents ready to ship him back to Boston? Which Daisuke Matsuzaka will show up – the one who struggles to make it through five innings or the one who has been lights out to opposing hitters? Can Paul Byrd keep the ball in the park if he needs to take the mound? Does David Ortiz have more magical moments in his bat or is that wrist still bothering him? Can Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp turn in respectable offensive performances to match their fielding prowess?
That’s the fun of the postseason. It’s a sprint to the finish (though sometimes the individual games feel more like marathons). The tension mounts as the month of October progresses – no matter how many times the Sox have won in recent years. The same moments – good and bad – that would fade quickly from memory during the course of a 162 game season will be etched in the fans’ memory when they occur on crisp autumn nights.
It’s time for October baseball. That’s what the past six months have been leading up to. It’s what players and fans dream about as Florida shows the first signs of spring in February. It’s what we have to look forward to in just one week’s time.