Big Series: Boston (84-54) at Oakland (81-58).
Big Wipeout: The Red Sox needed only three innings to knock out Tim Hudson and blew out Oakland, 8-3, to complete a three-game road sweep of the AL West leaders. Anaheim, Texas and Oakland were supposed to be big obstacles for the Red Sox, and instead, Boston won eight of nine and outscored the Westies, 63-35. Overall, that makes 26 wins in 31 games for the Red Sox, 14 of their last 15, and they're just two games behind the Yankees. Imagine the AL East as one of those Dukes of Hazzard car chases: While the Yankees have cruised on the easy road through Toronto and Tampa Bay lately, the Red Sox disappeared into the side road from hell -- mud bogs, cattle crossings, a leap through a hay barn -- but as both turn the corner and head down the home stretch, Boston is still right behind New York, bigger than ever before in the rear-view mirror.
Big Early Problems: Hudson struggled with his control at the outset, walking the first three batters he faced, throwing a staggering 38 pitches in the first inning. The first three batters he faced each saw six pitches, and only two of the nine Boston batters who hit in the first inning saw fewer than four pitches. Hudson walked five and hit a batter in lasting only three innings, surrendering seven runs. With Pedro Martinez pitching for the Red Sox, that was more than enough; Martinez allowed two hits, three walks and no runs in six innings, and ran his record to 16-5.
Big Showdown: Toronto beat Anaheim, 1-0, so Oakland remains a game ahead of Anaheim in the loss column -- and this all but ensures that the Athletics will have to fight off the Angels head-on later this month and settle the divisional scrap face-to-face. Anaheim's next nine games are against Toronto, the White Sox and Seattle; Oakland's next 10 games are against Cleveland, Texas and Seattle. The Angels and Athletics play a three-game series in each of the last two weekends of the regular season.
Big Finish: Boston's schedule now seemingly opens up into a path of patsies -- four games in Seattle, six more games with Tampa Bay, eight with the Orioles, along with the six games remaining against the Yankees. New York, meanwhile, still has another series left against the Twins -- the next-to-last series of the season, meaning that the Yankees will probably face Johan Santana and Brad Radke, as Minnesota aligns its rotation for the postseason.
Big Difference: The Red Sox might be the best team in baseball right now, and their lineup is deep and experienced, starting with Johnny Damon and finishing with Dave Roberts. On the other hand, the 6-7-8-9 hitters in the Oakland lineup Thursday were talented but very inexperienced -- Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher, Adam Melhuse and Marco Scutaro. This is part of the reason why the Athletics must get dominant starting pitching down the stretch; they do not have the depth that the Red Sox, Yankees or Angels have on their roster.
Big Grin: Boston right-hander Derek Lowe sometimes looks as though he expects everything to go wrong, but that is changing, with the way he's pitching and the way the improved Red Sox defense is playing behind him. In the third inning of Tuesday night's game, Oakland's Mark Kotsay hit a hard roller up the middle, seemingly headed for center fielder. But shortstop Orlando Cabrera darted to his left, slid onto his left thigh and gloved the ball, before quickly getting to his feet and gunning down Kotsay. Then Mark McLemore, the next hitter, slapped a line drive down the third base line, destined for the left field corner, before Bill Mueller dove and make a backhanded catch. Lowe lifted his hands slightly -- a subdued "Wow" -- and then smiled. The life of a sinkerballer is so much better when the fielders behind you are making every play. Lowe lasted 6.1 innings, and has won seven of his last eight decisions, improving his record to 14-10.
Big Depth: Boston's offense is getting better all the way through the order, with contributions coming from top to bottom. On Monday, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the Rolls Royce sluggers of the Red Sox, each ripped home runs. Then, on Tuesday, Kevin Millar, Orlando Cabrera and Gabe Kapler -- the No. 6, 7 and 9 hitters in the Boston lineup -- combined for seven hits in 11 at-bats, five runs and six RBI.
Big X-factor: Ramiro Mendoza was a complete waste of money for Boston in 2003 and into this season, but he has quietly become a useful part of the Red Sox staff. He pitched another scoreless inning Monday, lowering his ERA to 1.69. And what the Red Sox will discover, if they reach the playoffs, is that he is not afraid of October pressure.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is on the New York Times Best-Seller List and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.