By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Red Sox have forgotten how to lose baseball games.
Whether it’s a walk-off bomb from Hanley Ramirez or a come-from-behind victory on Sunday Night Baseball or an ace-like pitching performance from a bottom-of-the-rotation starter or an extra-innings dance move at home plate, the Red Sox are on a remarkable tear, during which they’ve climbed to the top of the AL East and taken a stranglehold on the division.
Following a four-game sweep of the Yankees at Fenway, a four-game sweep in Baltimore and a three-game sweep in Tampa, the Sox now hold a 5.5-game lead over Toronto in the AL East. With just a week to go in the regular season, the Sox are now a virtual certainty to win the division.
That’s no small feat. Since the division format was adopted in 1969, the Red Sox have won the AL East just seven times before: 1975, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1995, 2007 and 2013.
Four of those seven seasons are etched in Red Sox history forever, as the ’75 and ’86 teams famously reached the World Series, while the ’07 and ’13 teams obviously won championships.
At the same time, winning the division hasn’t always brought about playoff success. The ’88, ’90 and ’95 teams didn’t win a single postseason game, thanks to sweeps by Oakland (’88, ’90) and Cleveland (’95).
It’s really been an all-or-nothing proposition for the Red Sox when they win the division, but this year’s team appears to have the goods to group itself with the ’75, ’86, ’07 and ’13 squads.
These Red Sox have quite a ways to go if they want to be playing into late October/early November, but they’ve made a case over the past two months that they are among baseball’s best. Suffice it to say, that was not a statement being made in early July.
There’s no one specific reason for an 11-game winning streak, but both president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager John Farrell have given special credit to the bullpen for the recent success.
“I think it’s one of these times all year where it’s come together, all parts of our game,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Jonny Miller last week. “We’ve been real strong from an offensive perspective, we’ve been scoring runs on a consistent basis at five, six runs a game. Our starting pitching has been good. Our defense has been solid. And our bullpen has been absolutely outstanding. So when you combine all of those things — a couple of games we’ve had some bad starting pitching, hasn’t been quite as up to par, but then our bullpen has stepped up. And I think it’s one of the times all year where everything has come together, rather than bits and pieces of those different areas.”
Appearing on “High Heat” with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo prior to the weekend series in Tampa, Farrell shared a nearly identical sentiment.
“We’ve come together pretty good, probably in all three ways — pitching, defense, and the offense has been a pretty good constant throughout the year,” Farrell said. “But, in September, our bullpen has really picked us up in games where our starter may have checked out early, and they’ve allowed us to kind of keep on the run that we’re in the midst of right now.”
Farrell also talked about how some come-from-behind victories late in the year helped instill a new level of confidence in his players.
“When we’re in that final game against Toronto up in Toronto, that was a big comeback win for us there. So inside that week with the game that Hanley won with the big three-run homer [against the Yankees], there were four times in that week where we came from behind to win some ballgames,” Farrell said. “So it is a confidence boost in our clubhouse. And the number of games we played out West late in the season, the road trips, the schedule, I think it’s allowed us to jell and come together even closer knit as a group.”
Once again on Sunday, despite his pitchers striking out 23 Rays batters, the Red Sox needed to show some late fight to exit Tampa with another sweep under their belts. Thanks to a David Ortiz laser and some creative base-running from Dustin Pedroia, they did just that.
“Today was big lift for us,” Farrell said after the 3-2 win, per The Boston Globe. “We scratched and clawed our way back into a game in which we give up the lead late. Pedey’s right in the middle of it again.”
Entering Monday, the Red Sox’ magic number to win the division sat at two. With Toronto playing Monday at home against the Yankees, the rested Red Sox could take care of business themselves and clinch the division with a win Tuesday night in the Bronx. If they do, it’ll be their 12th straight victory — which would match their longest winning streak since 2006. They’ve also matched their best road winning streak — eight games — since 2002.
Provided the Red Sox finish the job, it will be their third AL East title in 10 years, after winning just two division titles in the 18 years prior. The Red Sox — a team that sat two games back of first place in a tense three-team race as recently as the final day of August — have all but locked up this fate with a full week remaining in the regular season.
In all, it’s been a remarkable surge, as a team that looked to be on a path to either earn a spot in the wild-card game or miss the playoffs completely has soared to the top of not only the division but the entire American League, making a statement that despite a shortcoming or two in the starting rotation, the Boston Red Sox will not be an easy out for any opponent this coming October.