BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox have almost two weeks before their first playoff game, enough time to tweak their pitching rotation and nurse their injured players back to health.
And they won’t stop trying to win, either.
“We still want to play a good brand of baseball,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said after the home finale when asked what his goals were over the last week of the season. “We don’t see the clinching of the division as a breather.
“It’s a matter of continuing on and playing a very sound brand of baseball.”
The Red Sox secured a playoff berth on Thursday and clinched the AL East the next night, but there’s plenty more to play for over their final five games. Mostly, the goal remains to earn the best record in the American League, a prize that would earn them a playoff matchup with the wild-card winner.
Entering Monday night’s games, the Red Sox held a 1½-game lead over AL West-champion Oakland and a 3½-game lead over the Central Division-leading Detroit. The division winner with the best record will play the surviving second place team, which will not only be fighting for a postseason berth through the end of the season but will have to use one of its best pitchers in a wild-card play-in game.
“We really want to get that best record; we want that for all stuff it means for playoffs,” outfielder Daniel Nava said. “We want that best record. We know what it means.”
The Red Sox were off on Monday before heading to Colorado for two games against the Rockies and then to Baltimore to finish the season with three games there. They will not begin the playoffs until Oct. 4 — a week from Friday — giving them time to line up their starting pitchers and rest any regulars who need it.
Farrell said on Sunday that he will start John Lackey on Tuesday and Jake Peavy on Wednesday in Colorado, and then use Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and Lackey against the Orioles. That would likely set up Lester, Lackey and Buchholz for the first three games of the playoffs — each of them with no less than the regular amount rest.
With two extra days off this week — they are also off to travel on Thursday — the Red Sox position players probably won’t need extra rest.
“You have four days off at the end of the year, so I think it’s important for us to play,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “It’s your pitchers: you give them their rest. But position players need to continue to do what they’re doing now.”
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who had been out since Sept. 5 with a broken bone in his foot, is expected to return on Wednesday. Buchholz could use another start to build up his arm strength after spending almost half the season on the disabled list, and young players like Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks could probably just use the playing time.
“Getting Jacoby back is probably as big as anything,” Farrell said.
Of course, the Tigers and A’s aren’t just sitting around, either. Oakland has three games against the Los Angeles Angels and three against the Seattle Mariners. The Tigers finish up with three against the Minnesota Twins and three against the Miami Marlins.
“We don’t ever ease up. We’re always pushing forward. We’re always playing for the moment,” A’s reliever Jerry Blevins said. “There’s no relax for this team.”
The A’s still remember what happened last year, when they finished with the second-best record in the AL and had to open the playoffs in Detroit. The Tigers eliminated them in five games.
“We know our place is as tough a place to play for other teams. Last year was absolutely nuts here and I have no doubt it will be again this year,” outfielder Josh Reddick said. “We’re going to do everything we can to try and get this thing started here.”
For the Red Sox, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, the chance to play at home could also be a big advantage. They went 53-28 at Fenway Park — the best home record in baseball — though they also have a chance for the best road record, too.
And they have gone 14-6 in September — quite a turnaround for a team that went 7-20 in the month in 2011 to blow a nine-game lead in the wild-card race and miss the playoffs on the final day. Last year, the Red Sox were never in it, winning 69 games for the franchise’s worst finish in almost half a century.
“We have heard a lot lately about the last couple of Septembers,” Farrell said. “But that has not penetrated the minds of anyone in this clubhouse.”