The major league baseball season ends five weeks from Wednesday night. The Red Sox are caught up in one of the tightest division races in baseball, one game back of the New York Yankees after losing Monday to the Texas Rangers.

Of course, it’s a race with a safety net. The old rivals are neck-and-neck in the battle for first place but both began the week with a wild-card lead of more than seven games.

It would take a massive collapse for either team to not make the playoffs, despite the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays are playing their best baseball of the season.

That’s what made the weekend in Kansas City so impressive for the Sox. It’s no surprise that Boston pounded the Royals, one of the worst teams in baseball.

Taking three of four at Kaufmann Stadium is not one of the goals Terry Francona set for this team in the offseason.

The Sox were expected to win the series.

They weren’t expected to do it with starting lineups featuring Darnell McDonald in center, Mike Aviles at third and Ryan Lavarnway as the DH.

Yet that’s exactly what we got with a team missing three starters, four if you count the long-forgotten J.D. Drew.

Kevin Youkilis is on the DL with a sore back and won’t return soon.

David Ortiz is closer to getting out of the boot he’s wearing to recover from bursitis in his heel.

Jacoby Ellsbury sat out the last two games of the series after being hit by a pitch Friday night.

The Sox were cautious with Ellsbury. Very cautious. That’s the beauty of knowing you have a big enough lead in the playoff race to let your reserves step in for a bit.

And the backups stepped in beautifully.

McDonald had his best game of the season Sunday, a three-hit performance that included his fifth home run of the season.

Lavarnway had two hits and drove in a run for the second straight day.

On Sunday that was more than enough to back up the solid pitching of Jon Lester, who picked up his 13th win of the season.

The one-two punch of Lester and Josh Beckett is the real reason Red Sox fans should be optimistic about a deep run into October.

They form a left/right top-of-the-rotation combo that can match up with any team in the league.

Who fills the spot behind them in the rotation remains an open question. Erik Bedard pitched Monday night, and has been impressive at times. He has yet to string it together consistently and will get about seven more starts to try to do that.

No one’s been more inconsistent than John Lackey, but every time we’re ready to give up on him, we’re reminded that he’s a big-game pitcher.

His win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees two weeks ago was enough for many fans to hand him the No. 3 spot.

We’ll be watching every move Bedard and Lackey make in the weeks ahead as we begin to think about playoff matchups.

In the meantime, we’ll be watching young Red Sox players take the field as they give veterans time to rest, recover and get ready for the second season.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.