During a Red Sox summer game on NESN, Don Orsillo brought up an interesting point that didn't really resonate with me until just now.
Orsilllo felt that the Tampa Bay Rays, with their hot streak from late May through July, peaked too soon. For the most part, Orsillo and his predilections nailed it on the head; the Rays were below .500 for August and have fared little better going into the home stretch for the postseason, falling seven-and-a-half behind Boston in the AL East and struggling to maintain their hold on the second wild card spot.
Then, you have the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have all but wrapped up the NL West division with the most improbable post-All star break tear since the 1954 Cleveland Indians and even look to eclipse that team with their current winning percentage (.818 compared the '54 Indians' .775). While it is indeed extraordinary, given that the Dodgers had to go on a hot streak just to get back to .500 before the break and have yet to stall since, Los Angeles has had little posteason success in recent years, having won West Division titles in '04 and '08, but failing to have won a World Series or even a National League championship since 1988.
Whatever hot streaks or tears a team has been on, they have to check those at the door to the playoffs; the slate's wiped clean and, for lack of a less cliched term, it's a whole different ballgame. So how does Boston stand out from these two teams and others gearing up for the playoffs? What nuance will allow them to maintain their momentum shifting from regular season ball to the grueling, more mentally taxing mindset of the postseason?
Boston has slowly, but surely reestablished itself as the one of the most prominent threats for the postseason, and it hasn't been because of hot streaks or improbable, near record-breaking tears. It's because they have been consistent.
That's it, that's the Red Sox's biggest secret in 2013 that's not really a secret. Their record? Best in the AL and just topping Atlanta for the most wins in the majors, and the Sox haven't had a losing streak beyond three games. Their offense? Tops in nearly every category. Pitching? With the exception of Ryan Dempster, the BoSox have finally found a pitching rotation in Jon Lester, a rejuvenated John Lackey, a big-time acquisition in Jake Peavy and even Felix Doubront, to a lesser degree, mind you, that can go long innings, keep batters on their toes and keep things a little less daunting for the bullpen when they make their entrance.
The bullpen, typically a big-time question mark for the Sox, has also shown a marked improvement. Koji Uehara has been a great set-up man for Junichi Tazawa over the last few months, and the two relievers have proven essential in cutting off and closing the door on opposing offense, giving the Red Sox the chance for many of their amazing comebacks and walk-off wins over the 2013 season. Rookie reliever Brandon Workman showed great potential for strikeouts in his three quality starts with the Sox, with a 5.5 K/BB ratio and a 3.54 ERA to boot, and it can only improve with shorter, more explosive stints out of the bullpen.
The one real question that's plagued many Boston fans and analysts is Clay Buchholz's impending return to the pitching rotation and his role for the team in the playoffs. He has shown steady improvement on the comeback trail, particularly in his final rehab start for Pawtucket in a 7-2 victory with 52 strikes out of 71 pitches and 5 K's over 3-2/3 innings. He's been nothing but cautious, taking the recovery and rehab process one step at a time.
Buchholz is aware how essential his arm is to the Sox, particularly at playoff time. He comes back too soon and ends up back on the DL, the Sox lose their quintessential ace for the postseason and the potential spearhead in navigating the Sox to another World Series. While Boston has had good, solid pitching to further their big winning season, it takes GREAT pitching to win in the postseason, and for those first three months of the 2013 season, there were few greater than Clay Buchholz.
While Lester in recent starts has reminded us why he's a good hand and a lethal figure on the mound, it took him a summer of mental waffling to finally realize that he, along with Buchholz, will need to show that dominant mindset in the home stretch towards the postseason and establish themselves as the best 1-2 leading combo of any pitching rotation come playoff time.
If Buchholz shows in his upcoming start against Tampa Bay that he's the same as he was before, the 9-0 record in 12 starts, the 1.75 ERA, opponents batting only .195, and the Red Sox keep their good 2013 trends steady, there can be little doubt that the Red Sox won't just be a lock for the postseason, but will find themselves on the grandest stage of baseball once again.