Boston Red Sox clinch division title for second straight season, head to October with high hopes
On a cold and wet Saturday afternoon, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel took the mound for the 67th time this season, with a four-run lead and an opportunity to clinch the American League East in back-to-back seasons — the first time in club history. He struck out leadoff batting infielder Yuli Gurriel, allowed a home run to former teammate catcher Brian McCann, then let up a double to outfielder Cameron Maybin. However, he regrouped and finally struck out pinch hitting outfielder Tony Kemp and outfielder George Springer to seal a 6-3 win over the Houston Astros, beating out the New York Yankees for the AL East title.
The outing was reminiscent of the team’s week: the Sox had several opportunities to shut the door on the second-place Yankees, but lost four of five games before finally clinching the division. The final few weeks of September highlighted several concerns heading into the postseason, as an underperforming pitching staff and a streaky offense continued to prevent the team from looking like World Series contenders.
In a preview of their first round matchup against Houston, the Sox closed out the season by dropping three out of four, as the AL West champions finished the season by leading Major League Baseball in both batting average and on-base percentage. It’s a tough draw for the third-seeded Red Sox, but the newly crowned division champs have proven more than anything this season that they are resilient. They have more extra-inning wins than any team in baseball and the second-lowest bullpen ERA. As Sox outfielder Mookie Betts put it, “Once you’re in the postseason, anything can happen” — so don’t be surprised if this team pulls off a first round upset. There are several bright spots on this roster, starting with last season’s AL MVP runner-up in Betts.
While the rest of the team struggled offensively, Betts slugged .583 with a .281 batting average in the month of September, after a slightly disappointing follow-up campaign to his MVP-caliber season. The absence of David Ortiz has been felt all year, and the Sox are in desperate need of a leader in October who can spark their often sluggish offense. Betts has emerged as a front-runner for this role, and the team’s playoff chances rest largely on his shoulders — along with another member of the young Boston outfield. Rookie outfielder Andrew Benintendi has impressed at the plate and in the field, hitting both for power and average in the middle of the lineup. Benintendi has the potential to have a breakout postseason, after an impressive playoff debut last year in which he went 3-for-9 and cracked both a home run and a double.
Despite finishing the regular season with a team ERA of 3.70, (the fourth best in baseball) the Red Sox rotation remains the biggest question mark as they head to Houston. Even with pitchers as dominant as Chris Sale and a surprisingly phenomenal pitcher in Drew Pomeranz going in games 1 and 2, respectively, the Sox have little to look forward to afterward. Reigning Cy Young award-winning pitcher Rick Porcello added over a full run to his ERA this year, while pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez has had minimal success since his knee injury in June. Another possible candidate for a start in Game 3 is pitcher Doug Fister, who showed flashes of potential in September but ultimately ended the season with an ERA of nearly 5. Boston starters will bear a heavy load this postseason, especially if the offense continues to struggle, but a few quality starts and continuing dominance from the bullpen can make for a real postseason run.