Red Sox see twist in division chase

Red Sox see twist in division chase

CHICAGO -- In a normal season, if the Boston Red Sox had a five-game lead over the New York Yankees in mid-August, these would be the good times in the global village known as Red Sox Nation.

This mid-August, there's the five-game lead, but life has become a bit more complicated. That traditional twosome dominating the American League East has not only been joined, but, for the moment, surpassed by the Tampa Bay Rays.

Maybe the Rays will be derailed by the broken right wrist suffered by their incredibly talented rookie third baseman, Evan Longoria. Barring that turn of events, what we're looking at, with the Red Sox, is a new situation, one in which being clearly better than the Yankees is not an automatic guarantee of feel-good greatness.

With a 5-1 victory over Chicago on Monday night, Boston gained a split of its four-game series and moved to within four games of Tampa Bay in the AL East. The Red Sox are the current leaders in the AL Wild Card race. That would get them to October, but the way things are now, that would result in a first-round meeting, in a best-of-five series, with the best team in baseball by record, the Angels. A much happier scenario would be winning the East and getting the likely matchup against the AL Central winner, the White Sox or the Twins.

One way or another, the Red Sox give every indication of being a postseason team. But, like many a second-place team, they don't leave a sense of invulnerability in their wake.

"Boston's a real good club," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who just had four games to study the Red Sox. "Their pitching staff, their bullpen is real good. When you have a pitching staff like they have, you always have a chance."

Conceding the Angels one postseason spot, there are five leading contenders for the remaining three AL playoff openings -- the Rays, the Red Sox, the White Sox, the Twins and the Yankees. By the numbers, the Red Sox pitch better than any of the other contenders, so they should be in the postseason even if they do not win the AL East.

But there are nagging issues on the other side of the argument. Tim Wakefield is going on the disabled list with tightness in his right shoulder. The Red Sox are characterizing this as a preventative move and will summon another knuckleballer, Charlie Zink, who has been very effective at Triple-A Pawtucket, to make Wakefield's scheduled start on Tuesday night.

Bartolo Colon is still on the disabled list, and, one way or another, the Red Sox appear to be one starter short, at least for the moment. Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter against Baltimore in his second Major League start last Sept. 1, has not won a decision in his last eight starts. He is 0-5 with a 7.42 ERA in six starts since being recalled from the Minors on July 11.

Manager Terry Francona said on Monday that, in this case, the Red Sox were focused not on looking for alternatives, but on helping Buchholz get beyond this rough stretch.

"We're spending our energy trying to help him," Francona said. "Pitching against Baltimore last year it looked so easy. Now, it's not easy. His stuff is real good. At times, his execution wasn't. This kid's trying not to mope around. ... He's fighting his butt off."

Offensively, this is the post-Manny Ramirez era for the Boston lineup, in which the Red Sox have simultaneously become more contented and less feared. Ramirez had made himself enough of a distraction that a trade had become a necessity for the general well-being of the Boston club. The Red Sox, by trading Ramirez, became happier and mentally healthier, but it cannot be argued that they became tangibly better. Guillen notes that David Ortiz, without Ramirez behind him, will see fewer hittable pitches. And while Guillen has positive things to say about the new left fielder, Jason Bay, he also says:

"With all due respect to Mr. Bay, I'd rather pitch to Mr. Bay than to Manny Ramirez. I hope they keep Manny in the National League. Treat him well, keep him there, please."

The Red Sox may not have as much raw power in their attack as they had previously, but they do have more diversity. They are still first in the AL in on-base percentage, but they are also third in stolen bases, once a foreign concept for a Boston team.

And they still have a certain persistence to them; they were no-hit for 6 1/3 innings by John Danks on Monday night, but they turned out to be more dogged than helpless and won going away.

So the 2008 Red Sox, as they head for the stretch run, require a new frame of reference. Their overall pitching strength makes them a solid postseason candidate in any case, but their post-Ramirez offense still has questions to answer. They are significantly better than the Yankees, but, at this moment, this status leads not to euphoria, but to the gray area of second place.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.