Fastball down the middle to Red Sox skipper John Farrell: When your team takes the field in Oakland on Friday night, aside from winning, what must its priority be for September?
"In Boston, it ends after winning," Farrell said, blowing out a deep breath and smiling.
Then, becoming serious, he added: "The priority, in addition to winning, is to rotate people through to keep guys as fresh as possible -- but not at the extent of sacrificing today's game.
"That's where you combine matchups that might be advantageous on our side to rotate some people through. We need to solidify our setup guy in the bullpen."
September baseball can be excruciating, draining, disappointing. Early in the season, struggling teams can pick up the pieces and rebuild their season because plenty of games remain. No so in September.
"The last month is always the toughest," said Farrell. "The stage is somewhat set and you're in the final stretch of games where the importance can climb if you haven't capitalized on prior opportunities.
"In addition to winning and getting a couple of guys on track offensively, solidifying the eighth inning is our major priority now."
The Red Sox begin September two games behind first-place Toronto in the American League East. They have a two-game hold on the first of two AL Wild Card spots.
Boston plays three games at Oakland, then moves down the California coast for three at San Diego. Those six games will set the stage, as Farrell says, for the final 23 -- all within the division, beginning Sept. 9 at Toronto. There are seven apiece against Baltimore and New York, six with the Blue Jays and three with the last-place Rays, the only team in the division with a losing record.
The season ends with three games vs. Toronto at Fenway Park.
The Red Sox were favored by many to unseat the Blue Jays this year as division champs. On the morning of July 1, Boston was seemingly in quicksand -- in second place and five games behind then first-place Baltimore.
Since then, the Orioles have fallen off, the Jays have risen and the division has become a three-team race. There's obvious excitement throughout Red Sox Nation. Youngsters on this team have been amazing.
Outfielder Mookie Betts, with 30 homers, 96 RBIs and a .320 batting average, is a leading candidate for the AL MVP Award. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts is hitting .306 with 17 homers and 77 RBIs. Veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who has been on fire of late, is batting .323 with 12 homers and 87 runs.
"It's fun looking up at that scoreboard a lot," Bogaerts told MLB.com's Ian Browne. "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."
Just when it appeared that what Farrell calls Boston's "Bermuda Triangle" had formed, sensational rookie Andrew Benintendi suffered a severe left ankle sprain on Aug. 24 against the Rays at Tropicana Field. In 21 games, he'd become one of the most exciting youngsters in the AL, batting .324 with a homer and 10 RBIs. There was no structural damage in Benintendi's ankle, and Farrell said he is hopeful he will be back later this month.
And then there's Big Papi. Designated hitter David Ortiz, on his farewell tour after announcing he's retiring after the season, has added another dimension to the Red Sox's summer. Nothing would be more fitting than for Big Papi to go out after helping his team back to the postseason. It's a perfect script: Ortiz is batting .313, has blasted 31 homers and driven in 102 runs. He's determined to go out a winner.
Ortiz is the only player in the Majors with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in his final four seasons, and 10 times in his career.
"We need offense," he said. "We've had good offense all year because we need that. Hopefully, we can keep doing that and the results will show. Going to the playoffs is motivating. At this time, that's all you want to do. We're thinking about going to the playoffs, and we're right there."
As Farrell stated, the eighth-inning relief must be fixed.
Against the Rays on Wednesday at Fenway, Boston took a 6-4 lead to the eighth inning thanks mostly to rejuvenated Hanley Ramirez's grand slam in the fifth. But the lead evaporated when Tampa Bay scored twice against Fernando Abad and Junichi Tazawa. In the bottom of the frame, the Red Sox scored twice and ended August with a victory. Ramirez batted .306 with six homers and 24 RBIs in August, his best month across the board.
For Ramirez, though, it's all about September baseball.
"Win games that we're supposed to win," he said. "That's it. That's the key. So we just got to continue doing that and keep pushing to the limit."
The starting pitching has been more than good.
Rick Porcello is atop the rotation. His 18 wins are the most in the Majors, while Steven Wright, back from the 15-day disabled list, is 13-6 and David Price 13-8. Closer Craig Kimbrel has saved 24 of 26 games, with a 2.86 ERA.
And now the footnote to what could be a storybook September for Boston: Yoan Moncada. He's the top-ranked prospect by MLBPipeline.com, is joining the team Friday in Oakland and has already created a frenzy in Red Sox Nation.
A 21-year-old switch-hitter, Moncada was signed to a record $31.5 million deal after defecting from Cuba. He joins Benintendi as the second prospect summoned from Double-A Portland, where he was hitting .277 with 11 homers and 28 RBIs, plus nine stolen bases, in 45 games. Moncada will play third base -- where the offense has been lacking -- and has Red Sox fans remembering 2007, when Jacoby Ellsbury arrived, and '13, when Bogaerts was promoted.
"He's an exciting young player, extremely talented," said Farrell. "The reviews are all positive. Time will tell."
And hopefully for Boston, maybe this could all be another September Song.