NEW YORK -- The champagne is on ice.
With a victory Tuesday night -- at Yankee Stadium, of all places -- or a Toronto Blue Jays loss to the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox will clinch the American League East title and complete their second worst-to-first turnaround in the past four years. But while a division crown is a fait accompli, the Sox still have plenty to play for over the final week of the regular season, from home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to healthy competition for a precious few unclaimed spots on the Division Series roster.
Here, then, are a few situations worth watching through Sunday's season finale at Fenway Park:
Will there be an October surprise at third base?
A few weeks ago, the Red Sox called up top prospect Yoan Moncada in the hopes that they would get more production from the third base position.
Moncada demonstrated he's not yet ready for the big leagues, appearing overmatched against offspeed pitches and unable to adjust to the way he was being attacked. But his mere presence brought out the best in Travis Shaw, who saw his playing time threatened and went on a mini hot streak once he got back in the lineup.
Shaw has gone ice cold again (4-for-36 with 10 strikeouts in his last 10 games), so it was hardly a surprise last weekend that manager John Farrell brought up the possibility of a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval and said he’s “not ruling it out.” Sandoval has been sidelined since April after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder. And Kung Fu Panda has always loved October, as he batted .343 in 154 career postseason at-bats for the San Francisco Giants.
In reality, the odds of Sandoval being ready for the playoffs are no better than Tom Brady taking Roger Goodell to lunch one day this week. Sandoval has been getting at-bats as a designated hitter in Florida Instructional League games, which puts him ahead of his rehab schedule but still light years from starting at third base in a playoff game.
But if Farrell can spark Shaw by creating the illusion that Sandoval is progressing at warp speed, well, a little exaggeration won't hurt.
There's a better chance, though, that a struggling Shaw will cede playing time to lefty-hitting utilityman Brock Holt, who represents a steadier defensive option than veteran Aaron Hill, a right-handed hitter who already has eaten into Shaw's at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Moncada, bound for the Arizona Fall League, isn't in the picture.
Who will start Game 3?
By clinching the AL East early, the Sox will have the luxury of lining up their starting rotation. In all likelihood, $217 million ace David Price will start Game 1, followed by Cy Young Award candidate Rick Porcello, especially if Game 2 is at Fenway, where he is 13-1 this season.
But what about Game 3?
Chances are, Farrell will try to take advantage of favorable matchups. If the Red Sox play the Orioles, ex-Baltimore farmhand Eduardo Rodriguez would be a good choice, given his 1.63 ERA in five career starts at Camden Yards. Clay Buchholz typically pitches better in Toronto (11-3, 2.63 ERA in 16 career starts) than in his native Texas (0-4, 6.00 ERA in five starts).
Although left-hander Drew Pomeranz pitched well in a five-inning start last weekend at Tampa Bay, there's some concern that he's fatigued after having exceeded his career-high innings total. He also has more experience out of the bullpen than either Rodriguez or Buchholz.
How will the bullpen be filled?
In discussing the importance of fellow 40-something Koji Uehara to the Red Sox's World Series hopes, David Ortiz recently called him the team's "secret weapon." Surely, the bullpen has appeared far more stable since Uehara returned from a two-month stay on the disabled list.
Uehara is back and dominant as ever after recovering from a strained right pectoral muscle that threatened to end his season. And his presence in the eighth inning has brought order to everything that comes before it, with Farrell now able to mix and match in the sixth and seventh with submarining Brad Ziegler, lefty Robbie Ross Jr. and hard-throwing righty Matt Barnes.
Those three relievers, plus Uehara and closer Craig Kimbrel are guaranteed to have seats in the playoff bullpen. Regardless of whether Pomeranz joins the group as a long man, right-handers Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree might be pushing for one spot, while trade-deadline addition Fernando Abad and upstart Robby Scott appear to be vying for another as situational lefties.
The latter competition is particularly intriguing. Although Abad has struggled since being acquired from the Minnesota Twins, lefties are 11-for-72 against him. Scott, a former independent leaguer, has retired 15 of 21 batters, six by strikeout, over 5-1/3 scoreless innings since getting called up. Lefties are 2-for-10 against him.
Which potential first-round matchup is most favorable?
The top seed in the AL would mean a Division Series showdown with the winner of the wild-card game. And while that team will have expended great energy -- and likely used its best starting pitcher -- just to get to that point, it also will have built up some momentum.
Last year, the Houston Astros nearly rode the wild-card wave to the AL Championship Series, while the Chicago Cubs took it to the NLCS. In 2015, the Kansas City Royals went from a wild-card victory all the way to the World Series.
Finishing with the second-best record could mean a best-of-five Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, who will be without injured starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar in the postseason.