The Boston Red Sox Go Worst-to-First and Clinch the American League East

The Boston Red Sox celebrate after clinching the American League Eastern Division after a baseball game against the New York Yankees Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The 2016 Boston Red Sox have won the American League East.

It wasn’t a storybook pennant clinching night. The Red Sox blew a 3-0 ninth inning lead to the New York Yankees and lost on a walk-off grand slam home run by Mark Teixeira.

It was the type of loss that would normally send Red Sox fans into a full blown panic. Instead about 15 minutes before the Red Sox suffered the loss, the Baltimore Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays and handed the division title to the Red Sox.

With four games remaining in the regular season the Red Sox sport a 92-66 record. The remaining four games do hold some importance. Home field in the divisional series is on the line.

If the Red Sox can catch the Texas Rangers and claim the AL’s best record, they’d have home field throughout the playoffs and due to the American League’s All-Star game victory, the World Series as well.

The Red Sox hold slim lead over the Cleveland Indians for the second best record. That would give the Red Sox home field in the divisional series against the Indians and but were they to face the Rangers in the ALCS, they’d be the road team.

The real story here is the divisional title and the transformation of a team that finished in last place in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the modern divisional era, into a first place club that won a very competitive American League East race.

Boston’s divisional title is their first since 2013 and their third of the century. They’ll be heading to the postseason of course, and it will be the franchise’s eighth postseason trip of the century.

This year’s Red Sox team will most likely be remembered for their offense. The Red Sox led the majors in runs scored, hits, doubles, total bases, team batting average and top ops.

The starting lineup features two legit MVP candidates in Mookie Betts and David Ortiz. As of Thursday morning, the Red Sox have three players with over 100 runs batted in, David Ortiz, Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez. They’ve got three of the top five hitters in the league in Mookie Betts (.320) Dustin Pedroia (.319) and David Ortiz (.316.)

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts is slashing .295/.356/.442 with 20 home runs, 88 RBI’s and 13 stolen bases.

Jackie Bradley Jr is a likely gold glove winner in centerfield and is slashing .272/.354/.496 with 26 home runs and 87 RBI’s.

The lineup is powered by those six players, but rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi has been impressive since his August debut. Sandy Leon secured the starting catching job with a shockingly good performance at, and behind the plate.

Chris Young was signed to be platoon player and he’s taken to the role. Facing a steady diet of left-handed pitchers, Young slashed .270/.350/.500 with 9 home runs and 22 runs batted in.

As great as the offense is and as big a role as they played in the 2016 Red Sox run to the AL East crown, they by no means accomplished it on their own.

In fact, the Red Sox were not able to truly secure the division until the pitching morphed from inconsistent and largely unreliable into consistent and at-times downright dominant.

Rick Porcello has one start remaining in a season in which he’s currently 22-4 with an ERA of 3.11 and league-best whip ratio of 0.99. David Price has been hot and cold, but he’s still sporting a 17-9 record, 4.04 ERA and 228 K’s.

The rest of the starting rotation has been a case of playing the hot hand. Knuckleballer Steven Wright had a dominant first half that earned him a well-deserved All-Star selection. He’s been either injured or ineffective since the break. Clay Buchholz was awful for the first half of the season, but he came on strong as the season progressed and as it stands now, he’s likely to be a part of the Red Sox post season starting rotation.

Eduardo Rodriguez was another starter who had a first-half to forget, but just like Buchholz, his late-season performances have earned him a spot in the postseason rotation.

Midseason additions such as starter Drew Pomeranz and lefty reliever Fernando Abad have both been disappointing. Pomeranz is out of gas having pitching a career high 169.1 innings. Abad has been more bad than good, and as it stands now there’s ample reason to think the Red Sox might leave Abad off the postseason roster and carry 27 year old journeyman lefty Robby Scott in his place as a left-handed relief specialist.

That’s not the whole story of the bullpen.

David Price was the biggest offseason addition for the Red Sox, but the second biggest addition was closer Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel was a dominant, lights-out closer in the National League. His first season in the American League has been very good, but not quite as good as many might have expected. He’s on pace to finish with career-worsts in ERA (3.35) walk-ratio (4.8 per 9ip,) a career low in saves (30,) and a career-high in losses (5.)

Wednesday night’s loss to the Yankees was not just a loss, it was a meltdown by Kimbrel who entered the game in the bottom of the ninth with a 3-0 lead, and then proceeded to allow a single, wild pitch and three straight walks before exiting the game with one run in, the bases loaded and no outs. He threw 28 pitches and only 13 were for strikes.

It was Joe Kelly who gave up the walk-off grand slam to Teixeira but the loss was appropriately handed to Kimbrel.

Kimbrel’s implosion shouldn’t overshadow another dominant performance from reliever Koji Uehara who has yet to allow a run over 10 innings of September work.

Brad Ziegler was also acquired mid-season and after some rocky appearances in July and August, he’s found his stride in September, pitching 11 innings and allowing zero earned runs.

This Red Sox team is a team. The hitting was better than the pitching, but the pitching was critical to the team’s success.

They’re 92-66, they’ve got first place locked up. Playoff baseball will start in either seven or eight days.

There’s plenty left to accomplish. Making the playoffs and winning the division are just the mandatory first steps needed to put a team in position to compete for, and ultimately win the World Series.

That’s the real goal, but for now the AL East title is certainly something that the Red Sox and their fans should be happy about.

 

About the Author

Ben Shapiro

Red Sox columnist for ESPN New Hampshire. Originally from Western Massachusetts, I currently live in New York City with my wife and dog.

I’ve previously written for Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and MassLive.com

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