Sports Illustrated’s Tom Donovan says Terry Francona needs to stop fiddling and start winning.
Donovan acknowledges that the Red Sox appear to be perfectly happy to let the division slip in favor of being more strongly positioned for the playoffs (health, rotation alignment, etc.):
Bye-bye, division title? Right now, it’s sure looking that way. What’s worse is that it’s clear that the division crown doesn’t seem to matter to the Red Sox. Winning the AL East — which the Sox haven’t done since 1995, by the way — is nothing but icing for Francona and the Sox. They’ll take it. But the cake, they insist, is the important thing.
"Ultimately," Francona said in an interview with NESN before Wednesday night’s loss in Toronto, practically dismissing the notion of winning the East, "what we’d like to do is go farther than that. We want to win a World Series."
He also acknowledges that a. The Red Sox have won the World Series as a wild card team, and b. That teams that looked terrible through Sept. 30 have made it to and won the World Series:
I’m not a big believer in momentum. It’s a hugely overrated concept in baseball. The Cardinals proved that last season as they limped to the finish line before winning it all. But losing going into the postseason, while fighting to the end, is one thing. Backing into the postseason while giving away games is something else entirely.
But, he insists, Francona needs to get his team into gear and win now. Why?
More than that, though, what kind of competitor would settle for second place? What message does that send to the Red Sox players and their fans? What kind of message does it send to the Yankees, or the Angels, or the Indians? By essentially conceding wins now, you put doubt into your own team — it’s there, you can tell — and embolden the competition.
Really? That’s the answer you’re going to go with? The Red Sox need to win now, at whatever costs, to send a message to their playoff competition? That really makes no sense to me.
After thinking about this for a couple days, I have to admit the Sox’ apparent strategy makes sense. The Detroit Tigers aren’t keeping the Red Sox from going to the playoffs. The way the races are going, if the Sox don’t win the division, they will face the Indians while the Yanks play the Angels (arguably the ideal matchups for Boston). They’ll be healthier, better aligned, better rested as a wild card team. Better prepared for battle, in other words.
Donovan argues the Sox could use the home-field advantage (which matters not a lick until the World Series) and the choice of which ALDS schedule they’d like. These sound like pyrrhic victories to me. Home-field advantage and a better schedule are worthless if your team is exhausted from a final-week battle for a division crown that has essentially no meaning in the current format.
So, my question remains: If you’re already discounting the role of momentum, why, other than the short-term pain of losing ballgames, should the Red Sox kill themselves to win the division when in fact the division matters not at all in determining who is the World Champion?