Wild Card can work wonders for Sox

Wild Card can work for Red Sox

CHICAGO -- There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Wild Card entry in the postseason. No one knows this better than the Boston Red Sox, and their legions of fans.

That status simply calls for a slight downward adjustment of expectations and aspirations. But that can be a relatively painless process, even when it is brought on by the New York Yankees.

Just five Octobers ago, the Red Sox were the American League Wild Card team when they broke their 86-year World Series championship drought. At the time, it seemed as though being a Wild Card team had become a postseason advantage, maybe even a postseason necessity. The Red Sox were the third consecutive Wild Card team to win the World Series.

The downside of the current reality for the Red Sox is that this season, the Yankees, rather than merely thinking that they are the best team, are actually playing like they are the best team. It is still mathematically possible for Boston to overtake New York. In fact, the Red Sox have at a better shot at winning the AL East this year than Curt Schilling does at being elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts. But that is still saying that the chances are somewhere between slim and none.

On the plus side, there is more going for the 2009 Red Sox than precedent. An argument could easily be made that this team, as currently constituted, would be better in a short series than it is over the regular season.

The Red Sox haven't had the depth of starting pitching that might have been expected, with the extended absence of Daisuke Matsuzaka and, during the second half, the back problems of Tim Wakefield. Wakefield pitched on Saturday against the White Sox, and competed as valiantly as usual. But this was just his second Major League start since July.

The latest resurrection of John Smoltz did not occur as scheduled. Smoltz returned to the Majors and made two brilliant starts, but those starts were for the St. Louis Cardinals, and they followed a truly unsuccessful stint with the Red Sox.

But by the numbers, Boston has the second-best bullpen in the AL, which is to say the second-best bullpen in the Majors. The Red Sox didn't desperately need Billy Wagner, but they obtained him anyway, so a fine situation became even better.

The bullpen could make all the difference in a short series. The Red Sox have the best bullpen depth in the Majors, and they could put that depth to very good use.

In the postseason rotation, you don't need five pitchers. Four is the maximum sensible postseason rotation, but three would do, especially with more scheduled off-days. The Red Sox could make that work.

Josh Beckett completely dominated the 2007 postseason. You could envision him reaching that level again. He was brilliant this season from May through mid-August. He would need to get out of the current home run pattern (14 in the past five starts), but the record says that he rises to October occasions.

Lefty Jon Lester is all set. The third pitcher just might be young Clay Buchholz, who has pitched very well in four of his past six starts, and less than adequately in just one. By October, the Red Sox could have both Wakefield and Matsuzaka available, potentially giving them additional, reasonable options.

So the Red Sox, even as a Wild Card team, could be ideally positioned as an October team. The trick, of course, is getting from here to there.

The past two games at U.S. Cellular Field have not produced a wave of optimism. The Red Sox were outscored in two losses, 17-3, by the White Sox.

On Friday night, Paul Byrd, who had one excellent comeback start against Toronto, was simply dominated by Chicago's lineup, in a 12-2 rout. On Saturday, the Red Sox had very few usable answers against White Sox starter Gavin Floyd. In a 5-1 Chicago victory, Floyd retired the first 17 Boston hitters of the game, and struck out a career-high 11 in eight innings.

"Their guy was just dominant," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He had everything -- slider, fastball, cutter, change. He carved us up."

If the Red Sox had anything to be thankful for here it was that Wakefield emerged no worse for the wear. He gave up three runs in the first without being hit particularly hard, but he allowed only one run over the next five innings.

Wakefield is pitching in pain. When asked how much he feels the back pain when he is pitching, Wakefield responded: "A lot. It hurts to walk."

But Wakefield also said that after a cortisone injection, the discomfort was "tolerable enough that I can out there and compete." Wakefield will give this club whatever he has whenever he can. But the better he feels, the better the chances of this club will be.

With a Texas loss to Baltimore, Boston's lead in the AL Wild Card race remained at two games over the Rangers. There are only two clubs with better records than Boston in the AL; the Angels by a small margin and the Yankees by a large amount.

The Red Sox, as the only team with two World Series championships in the new millennium, are no longer accustomed to the notion of the Yankees' preeminence. But history indicates clearly that the Wild Card is no barrier to ultimate success. The Red Sox, with any kind of postseason berth, could be a very viable October operation. But first there is the matter of taking care of business in the next 27 games.

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