Pennant fever new, familiar feel at once for Sox

Pennant fever new, familiar feel at once for Sox

BOSTON -- The race is there in plain view for them every day, available by a quick glance at the manual scoreboard on the Green Monster or the electronic ones you see at most other parks.

For the Red Sox, the excitement of looking at the standings and the out-of-town scores creates the type of late-season excitement they haven't had since 2013. The calendar now flips to September -- the most fun regular-season month of all for those fortunate enough to contend.

"It's fun looking up at that scoreboard a lot," said Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. "It's very exciting. We've got to go out there and win every game. When you're going good as a team, everyone is anxious to get to the park and see each other."

And see the scoreboard.

The race the Red Sox are involved in should be a beauty. They are two games behind the Blue Jays for first place in the American League East while holding the top AL Wild Card spot by two games over Orioles.

"It's always a good feeling to come to the park and be a part of something like that," said Mookie Betts, who has put his name in the AL Most Valuable Player Award race with a monster season.

While Bogaerts was lucky enough to get called up in time for the run in 2013 that ended in World Series championship glory, this is the first pennant race for several of Boston's other young players, including Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Eduardo Rodriguez. And another dazzling young player is on the way, as Yoan Moncada, ranked No. 1 among prospects by MLB, will be added to the roster on Friday.

Clearly, though, this race isn't just about the young guys. You might have heard a certain veteran is retiring at season's end.

"You definitely appreciate it more after not being in the race the last two years, and you appreciate it because it's David Ortiz's last year too," said Betts. "So we've got to win it for him."

Ortiz's career will be remembered as much for championship runs as big hits. This is why back in January, Red Sox owner John Henry said it would be a "big disaster" if Ortiz's career ended without one more taste of the postseason.

At the age of 40, Ortiz is having one of his best seasons. Along with Betts, he is the centerpiece of the lineup.

"That's very motivating," said Ortiz. "At this time, that's all you want to do. We're thinking about going to the playoffs, and we're right there."

To push through that door and solidify a postseason berth, the Red Sox have some clear challenges ahead of them the next month.

One is the schedule. Of Boston's 29 games that remain, 19 of them are on the road, beginning with the nine-game road trip that starts Friday in Oakland.

The Red Sox are 33-29 on the road after going 7-4 on their last marathon trip.

Whether they are at Fenway or not, the bullpen needs to get better. Craig Kimbrel has been a force in the ninth inning since returning from left knee surgery. But the bridge to him has been shaky.

Will someone emerge from the trio of Brad Ziegler, Clay Buchholz and Matt Barnes to become the main man in the eighth inning? Perhaps Koji Uehara (due off the disabled list soon) or Joe Kelly (a September callup after dominating in the bullpen at Triple-A Pawtucket) will step up and take the job.

It doesn't matter who it is -- manager John Farrell just needs somebody to take charge and help prevent his team from the continuation of low-scoring tight losses that have occurred so often in recent weeks.

The one thing the schedule does provide is plenty of chances for the Sox to control their own destiny: There is a three-game series at Toronto to close out the next road trip, and also the three-game series at Fenway against the Jays to close the season that could be epic.

Boston hosts Baltimore from Sept. 12-14 and also has a four-game set at Camden Yards from Sept. 19-22.

And don't discount the rivalry games. The Yankees have been infused by their youth (how about Gary Sanchez?) of late, and they visit the Sox for four games (Sept. 15-18) while hosting them for three (Sept. 27-29).

The thrill ride that awaits will create memories for the Red Sox that they weren't able to have the past two seasons.

The road ahead

For the first time since 2013, the Red Sox will play meaningful games in September. This will be the final pennant race for Ortiz, and the first one for Boston's exciting young core.

Home games: 10

Road games: 19

Games vs. teams over .500: 20

Two key series: Sept. 19-22, at Orioles; Sept. 30-Oct. 2, vs. Blue Jays

Help on the way? The Red Sox hope to get Uehara back around Labor Day, which would be a big boost for a setup crew that has struggled in the second half. The would also benefit from the return of left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who recently sprained his left knee and could be back at some point during September.

Cause for concern: Championship teams in recent years have often been led by the bullpen, which is what worries Red Sox fans. Outside of closer Kimbrel, who has been solid since returning from left knee surgery, the club has lacked stability in the late innings.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.