Monday, March 10, 2014
BOSTON - It's September, and the Red Sox are in first place. It feels like it has been an eternity since they've been there, but it's only been two years.
September has been the cruelest month for the Sox over the past couple of seasons.
In 2011, the Sox suffered one of the worst September collapses in the history of the sport, going 7-20 down the stretch to blow a 91/2-game lead in the playoff race. It was a month that led to a complete overhaul in the front office.
Last year was even worse. There was no lead to blow, just a dismal 93-loss season that culminated with another seven-win September. That season led to a clubhouse overhaul.
Now the Sox are back in the lead.
The Red Sox took care of business over the weekend with a three-game sweep of the last-place Chicago White Sox.
That's not to say the wins were easy. Chicago had won 10 of 12 games coming into Fenway Park and was on a roll.
That recent run of success doesn't change the fact that the White Sox are a last-place team. Chicago is 24 games under .500 and 24 games out of first.
The Red Sox opened up the Tigers series with their biggest lead of the season. If you harbor championship aspirations you must beat those last-place teams.
And the Red Sox did.
Then the stakes got raised Monday with the arrival of the Central Division-leading Tigers. Detroit is the team picked by most to win the pennant, and hasn't done much to change those opinions. They arrived in Boston with a 71/2-game division lead, two games behind Boston in the race for the American League's best record -- and then proceeded to win a 3-0 shutout behind Doug Fister.
In this two wild-card playoff system, the battle for first place isn't just for bragging rights.
Claiming the top spot puts you up against the winner of the one-game wild-card playoff, meaning you will likely play a team worn down by travel that had to use a key starting pitcher before playing its first game of a division series.
The Tigers played Monday without Miguel Cabrera, who is vying for his second straight Triple Crown. He is the best hitter in the game but is battling an abdominal strain.
Even without Cabrera, the Tigers are formidable. They've got terrific starting pitching and a deep lineup. They've also got Jose Iglesias, the former Red Sox shortstop who is flashing his leather with the Tigers at Fenway this week. Iglesias was part of three double plays Monday as the Sox again had trouble scoring runs for starter John Lackey.
These three games against Detroit won't make or break Boston's playoff hopes.
The coming four-game series in New York and the three that follow in Tampa Bay will mean a lot more in the AL East race.
Still, this is a good test to gauge where Boston stands. The Sox don't just want to make it to October, they want to go deep into the month.
With Clay Buchholz close to returning, we'll soon see the team that will compete in the postseason.
Right now, we're seeing two teams that will be happy to face one another when they get there.
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.