BOSTON -- The Red Sox annual Picnic in the Park took place after Sunday’s win over Toronto, a chance for players and their families to mingle in the outfield on a perfect afternoon in Boston.
The pastoral scene was a fitting end to a lovely season at home for the Sox, who finished 53-28 at Fenway Park, the best home mark in the American League and a clear indication that finishing with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is of the utmost importance.
As Boston leaves town for the last time before the playoffs, here are 10 items to keep an eye on over the final five games of the season:
1. Press on: “To continue to win,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said Sunday when asked what his primary goal was on the five-game road trip. The club is closing in on securing the top spot in the AL, which would give them a home game Oct. 4 against the winner of the wild card play-in game, as well as home-field advantage over either Oakland or Detroit in a potential ALCS. (The Tigers have yet to clinch the Central but own a five-game advantage over Cleveland with six games to play.)
To illustrate just how critical it would be for Boston to have home-field advantage if it reached the second round, consider some basic win-loss records. The Sox are 64-27 at home against Oakland and Detroit since 2003. They are 38-49 at Oakland and Detroit in that same span.
2. Reeling Rockies: The bid for that top record in the AL may get a boost with two games at Colorado, which has been in play-out-the-string mode for weeks. However, before two Ws are penciled in for the Sox, it is worth noting that this year’s version of the Rockies has played out much like others in the franchise history, with decidedly better results at home. Entering Sunday, 12 teams in baseball owned more than Colorado’s 44 home wins. However, only Miami and the Chicago White Sox had fewer road wins than the Rockies’ 27.
3. Rotation shift: Farrell announced Sunday that John Lackey would start Tuesday in Colorado and Jake Peavy would go Wednesday. Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and Lackey are then scheduled to go, in that order, in the final three games of the season in Baltimore. That means Lester and Lackey are lined up to go in Games 1 and 2 of a Division Series with a five full days of rest, or Buchholz is the choice for the playoff opener on six days of rest, followed by Lester with six days off and Lackey in Game 3 with seven.
4. Ellsbury in action: The target date for Jacoby Ellsbury’s return is Wednesday in Colorado. If that doesn’t work out, Friday in Baltimore is likely. “Getting Jacoby back is probably as big a key as anything,” Farrell said about the priorities on the road trip. Ellsbury said earlier Sunday he does not anticipate any rust entering the postseason.
5. Limit the workload?: Koji Uehara’s outings come and go like a summer breeze. It’s a wonder we see him sweating in the clubhouse after games. Perhaps that comes from the ferocity of the high-fives, for there is such a limited degree of stress for Uehara and almost no reason to hesitate when calling his name.
However, Uehara has established career highs in appearances and innings pitched and has thrown 1,020 pitches this season, his highest total since 1,055 in his rookie year with Baltimore. A few more outings and the star closer may pass that mark and firmly establish his heaviest workload in the majors. Farrell would love to see a rout or two, one way or another, on this trip so he can stay away from Uehara.
6. Bullpen bingo: While Uehara’s role is understood, others in the pen operate on a day-to-day basis. There are times when Junichi Tazawa is the setup man, others when Craig Breslow does that work. Matt Thornton and Franklin Morales can match up against lefties, as can Ryan Dempster with his splitter. Brandon Workman and Drake Britton have had nice moments, but are rookies. In the end, however, Farrell has gone with a mix-and-match system for most of the second half of the season. He may use these final five games to give some guys that final test to see where best to slot them in the postseason.
7. Felix’s farewell?: One member of that bullpen formula could be Felix Doubront, who tossed seven strong innings Sunday. Farrell said he may give Doubront a look out of the pen next weekend in Baltimore, but admitted there will not be much of an opportunity to gauge Doubront’s effectiveness in a relief role before the roster is set for the Division Series.
Doubront deflected a postgame question Sunday about heading to the pen. His status remains very much up in the air, although it seems likely that he will be on the outside looking in come October.
8. Stretch it out: Another road trip priority for Farrell is to “get Clay stretched out.” Indeed, Clay Buchholz has managed to increase his pitch count in three starts since returning from injury, but he has yet to go beyond six innings. Stress of pitches and the number of up-and-downs are nearly as important as strict pitch count, and Farrell might want to get Buchholz through a sticky seventh before he knows his right-hander is primed for playoff baseball.
9. Jackie Bradley vs. Quintin Berry: This figures to be the one playoff roster competition remaining. Ellsbury’s ability to return with no issues is important, as it would render Bradley less significant, but it will be interesting to see how Farrell utilizes these two, and in what situations. Maybe his mind is already made up, but if not, there are five more games to make an impression.
10. Oh, those Orioles: Baltimore has lost four straight, a slide that has virtually wiped away its playoff hopes. They are 4 ½ back of the second wild card spot with seven games to play. If by some chance the Orioles manage to stick around until Friday, then that final series might have them playing with desperation. Baltimore already gives Boston all kinds of fits. If the Sox are still fighting for the best record and the O’s are still in the playoff mix, it could be a fun final weekend.