Red Sox still have business to settle before playoffs
AL East champs trying to get healthy while pursuing home-field advantage
En route to Denver and then Baltimore for the final five games of the regular season, the Red Sox have the luxury of already knowing they are the champions of the American League East. But that doesn't mean manager John Farrell and his team are going into Spring Training mode until the postseason. Far from it, in fact.
There are team goals still to achieve. There are also some individuals trying to get healthy, and others hoping to prove they should be on the postseason roster.
"We still want to play a good brand of baseball," said Farrell. "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."
Over the final five games of an already-satisfying 2013 season, here are the top five things the Red Sox are trying to accomplish before they embark on their first batch of postseason games since '09.
Home-field advantage and -- possibly -- 100 wins
Entering play on Monday, the Red Sox led the Oakland Athletics by just one game in the loss column in the fight for home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Detroit is still mathematically alive in that quest, with three losses more than Boston and two more than Oakland.
When you consider the Sox have the best home record in the AL at 53-28, this is an important element heading into these final games.
"Well, any time we can play in this ballpark in front of our fans, you've seen all year long the energy that gives us," said Farrell. "And we've seen it for years. The energy that's created in here and the way that our guys embrace it -- it has become our advantage once again. I think it's reflected by the home record."
Here's the other thing: If the Red Sox can run the table over the final five games, they would finish with the team's first 100-win season since 1946.
"We want to win out -- we want to win 100 games," said third baseman Will Middlebrooks. "And we want to have home-field advantage, too. It's a close record for the best record. Oakland is right behind us. That's important to us. A lot of starters are still playing. I'm sure they have the option to have the off time. But guys don't want it. Guys want to play, and that's pretty cool to see."
Getting Ellsbury healthy
In the 15 games since Jacoby Ellsbury went down with a compression fracture in his right foot, the Red Sox have gone 10-5. Don't let that solid mark fool you. To go deep into October, Boston would be best off with Ellsbury in the leadoff spot and manning center field.
Ellsbury is a consistent threat at the plate and on the bases, and he has played terrific defense all season. The rest of the lineup feeds off him. The latest target date for Ellsbury to return to action is Wednesday, which would give him four games before the season finishes.
"Getting Jacoby back is probably as big a key as anything," Farrell said.
Buchholz's final tuneup
Clay Buchholz has made 15 starts this season without turning in a single clunker. That said, he has been limited to those 15 outings due to the strained right bursa sac that kept him out of action for three months.
That makes Friday night in Baltimore -- Buchholz's final start before the playoffs -- as important as any game the Red Sox have left. It will be Buchholz's fourth start since returning from the disabled list, and the final gauge Farrell will have to determine where the righty should slot into the postseason rotation.
Though Buchholz (11-1, 1.60 ERA) finally lost in his last start, he got up to 106 pitches. If he can tack on about 10 more next time out, he will be exactly where Boston needs him to be.
Sorting out bullpen roles
Considering they have been one of the best teams in the Major Leagues all year long, it's hard to believe that the Red Sox are still trying to arrange a stable bridge in front of dominant closer Koji Uehara.
One setup man who has turned in consistent success all season is lefty Craig Breslow, so he figures to play a prominent role. But righty Junichi Tazawa, who can have overpowering stuff when he's on, has been a bit inconsistent in recent weeks. Farrell would love to get him back in a groove before the biggest games of the year.
Rookie right-hander Brandon Workman has shown enough to be on the postseason roster, but the leverage of his situations will depend on if he can snap out of a mini-funk he's been in recently.
Ryan Dempster, the battle-tested starter, will work in relief in October. Given his experience, Dempster could turn into a key piece for Farrell. He will continue to adapt to the bullpen role on this final road trip. The one thing that helps is that Dempster used to be a closer.
Will Felix Doubront factor into the team's plans at all in October? Doubront could help his case by sounding a little more enthusiastic about pitching in relief -- likely the only place Farrell can use him in the postseason. Hurting Doubront's cause is that the Sox are deep in lefties -- even behind Breslow -- with the presence of Franklin Morales, Drake Britton and Matt Thornton.
Each appearance for the relievers on the bubble will take on added importance in the coming days.
Individual stat lines
The beauty of this Red Sox team is they've prioritized team over individual all season long. However, some nice round numbers are good to have -- particularly when they are in reach.
With 29 homers and 98 RBIs, David Ortiz is closing in on his first 30-100 season in three years.
Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia both enter the final week at .299, and players always love to have .300 averages on their baseball cards. At .297, a hot finish could also push Daniel Nava to the .300 mark.
If Uehara can notch one more strikeout and not walk anybody, he could have a rare season of 100 strikeouts and fewer than 10 walks. Uehara currently has nine walks and 99 strikeouts over 72 1/3 innings.