The Boston Red Sox's hopes for a return to October baseball may be long dashed by now, but they can still throw their weight around when it comes to affecting the eventual outcome of the American League playoff picture.
Playing the role of a spoiler is not exactly a lofty goal for teams like the Red Sox, who always have high expectations. At this point, Boston's priority should be the development of younger players on the roster as well as identifying the team's most pressing needs for the 2015 MLB season.
But Boston's ability to finish strong in 2014 could prove vital in determining which AL east rival takes the division crown. The Red Sox's play might also affect other teams' chances around the majors.
Getting hot at the end of the year can be huge for any team regardless of the standings. Even if you are in the cellar—where the 56-71 Red Sox dwell—nobody wants to play you when you are riding a hot streak.
Boston can hope for this as the final month of the regular season draws near.
Let's take a look at three specific reasons why the Red Sox can be big-time spoilers in the month of September. Many of Boston's final matchups come against division rivals, so it will be interesting to see how the homestretch of the AL East plays out with the Red Sox being a significant factor.
Nineteen of Boston's final 26 games are against teams within the division. Only three of these are against the 62-65 Tampa Bay Rays—nine games out in the division and seven back in the Wild Card race—meaning the Red Sox's matchups against the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and division-leading Baltimore Orioles are significant.
Baltimore has a stranglehold on the division—nine games up over both New York and Toronto, who are both tied for second place.
The Red Sox play the Orioles six times during September—three games at home and away, respectively. Baltimore is 7-6 against Boston this year.
It may be too much of a challenge to thwart the Orioles' hold on the division alone, but if Baltimore enters any type of slump at the end of the season, these six games could be a factor.
But the Red Sox's best chance of playing the spoiler role within the division will likely come down to how they fair against the Yankees and Blue Jays. Toronto plays three games at Fenway Park during the month of September and New York has six, with its final three of the season in Boston.
Facing a nine-game deficit in the division, both the Blue Jays and Yankees are likely vying for one of the two Wild Card spots in the American League. Boston is 5-8 and 3-10 this season against New York and Toronto, respectively.
Outside of the division, the Red Sox have the chance to upset the playoff hopes of the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Boston will play Kansas City four times and Pittsburgh thrice in the midst of a 10-game road trip.
The Red Sox lead the season series against the Royals 3-0.
If the phrase "pitching wins championships" is true, then good pitching from a spoiler can also ruin a contender's chances for a championship as well.
We know the complete overhaul Boston's pitching staff underwent at the July 31 trade deadline. After the flurry of deals, the Red Sox's rotation looks nothing like what it did on Opening Day.
Let's not go so far as to say Boston's rotation is elite. Far from it.
But there are a number of reasons to be hopeful for the team's current crop of arms in the waning days of the 2014 season.
Boston's pitching staff has a 3.81 ERA over its past 12 games. The bullpen, such a strength last year, has posted a respectable 3.27 ERA this season.
The problem of late has been the offense. During that same 12-game span, Red Sox hitters are batting just .224, averaging 3.83 runs scored per game. Boston needs a little more offensive thump to improve that differential. We'll get to that in a moment.
Back on the mound...
Let's make a case study out of the Red Sox's deadline acquisition of Joe Kelly.
Kelly is 0-1 with a 5.29 ERA and 1.647 WHIP with Boston over three starts since the trade. Those numbers don't look particularly inspiring, but it is a small sample size.
If we take away Kelly's ugly August 17 loss to the Houston Astros, in which he allowed seven earned runs over 4.0 innings, Kelly's team ERA falls to 2.08—clearly a much more favorable number.
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe summarized Kelly's impact over his first two games with Boston:
He’s now put together two very good starts since being traded from St. Louis along with Allen Craig for John Lackey, who has had one good outing and one bad outing for the Cardinals. Kelly is 26, while Lackey is 35. The Red Sox would rather have a pitcher throwing 94-96 miles per hour under their control until 2019 rather than deal with Lackey’s whining over a minimum salary contract and the fact that they would have to extend him to keep him happy.
Having Kelly under contract does provide some incentive. He'll look to solidify his spot in the rotation for next year, and a positive showing down the stretch will undeniably help him with that.
Oh, and it may affect teams the Red Sox face as well.
Let's bring our attention back to the rest of the rotation for a moment.
Aside from Kelly, the Red Sox have Clay Buchholz, Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman and Allen Webster starting. All four of these starters have something to prove for next year.
For Buchholz, it is the chance to show that his 5.94 ERA this season was merely a fluke. He wants to remain a part of the Red Sox's rotation in spite of trade rumors that have been circulating.
Buchholz still feels he can shine, per Tom Layman of The Boston Herald, and he will have just over a month to prove it.
The rest of the rotation has something to prove as well. It is impossible to guarantee spots for De La Rosa, Workman or Webster next season given the possibility of adding a free-agent starter during the offseason. Additionally, many of Boston's fine young arms—like Henry Owens and Anthony Ranaudo—will be vying for consideration.
The Red Sox currently have no starting pitcher 30 or older, though Clay Buchholz turns 30 Thursday. Buchholz and Kelly surely sit on the front end of that rotation at present as the Red Sox continue to look at their youngsters such as Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster with Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and Brian Johnson still in the minors.
Motivation can be a valuable tool even for players on a spoiling team. There are roster spots up for grab in 2015 and that competition begins now.
Boston's 2014 season has been one mired in injury and setbacks. This has unquestionably been a major factor in determining why the Red Sox have gone from World Series champions to last in the division.
We touched on the recent struggles of the Red Sox's offense. A .224 team average over the past 12 games is pretty rough, but there are reasons why.
Injuries have again taken their toll on Boston's offense.
Designated hitter David Ortiz (soreness), first baseman Mike Napoli (back) and third baseman Will Middlebrooks (hamstring) have all recently missed time due to injury, per Chris Towers of CBS Sports. Allen Craig has spent most of his tenure with Boston on the disabled list, having landed there on August 1.
Deadline acquisition Yoenis Cespedes has also missed time due to a family issue.
Cespedes, Craig, Ortiz and Napoli provide much more thump to the Red Sox lineup. Unfortunately, this cast has seen relatively few chances to help the team since the deadline, so getting healthy will be paramount as the Red Sox's offense looks to improve.
Let's speculate that it does, however.
That combination, if healthy, should be able to increase Boston's recent average of 3.83 runs scored per game. If the rotation can hold its own, this would imply the Red Sox would improve on their overall record provided the bullpen can maintain its relatively solid season thus far.
This matters when factoring in the upcoming matchups against contending teams like Baltimore, Kansas City, New York and Toronto.
The Red Sox don't need to blow these teams out—though it would be helpful if they could—rather they simply need to gain the edge.
That edge will produce wins and potentially shake up the standings.
It all comes down to three factors: opportunity, good pitching and a healthy lineup—areas that have hindered the Red Sox for much of this season.
The opportunity to thwart opposing prospects for the postseason is there. We can thank the makers of the 2014 schedule for that.
Boston's rotation has a lot to prove in the final month of the season. As mentioned, jobs are on the line. Additionally, fielding a fully healthy team may provide the necessary boost the offense needs down the stretch.
We can't say that this will necessarily happen, but there are signs that it could.
At this point, those signs are all we can hope for.
All statistics are accurate as of August 21, 2014. Statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Boston Red Sox. Be sure to check out his entire archive on Red Sox news, insight and analysis.
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