Red Sox reach postseason despite problems

Sep 30, 2009 - 10:54 PM By HOWARD ULMAN AP Sports Writer

BOSTON(AP) -- David Ortiz hit one homer in the first two months. All-Star Tim Wakefield and out-of-shape Daisuke Matsuzaka were sidelined from the rotation for long stretches.

John Smoltz, signed to make a postseason impact, was released after eight starts and an 8.33 ERA. He and Brad Penny failed to adjust to the American League. Team captain Jason Varitek is batting above .200 - barely.

And the Boston Red Sox still clinched the AL wild card despite losing their fifth straight game.

At this point, does it matter how they got there for the sixth time in seven years? It's time to gear up for the postseason.

"We tried to do it on the field," third baseman Mike Lowell said after Tuesday night's 8-7 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. "It's a little different, but I don't think that takes anything away from what we've done."

Victor Martinez came from Cleveland to strengthen the offense, Alex Gonzalez came from Cincinnati to pick up the defense, and Clay Buchholz came from the minors to provide a huge lift to the rotation.

And Big Papi's power came back. From June 6 through Tuesday night, he led the AL with 27 homers and was tied for the lead with 75 RBIs.

So the Red Sox celebrated in their clubhouse more than two hours after their loss when the Texas Rangers, their lone pursuer, lost to the Los Angeles Angels.

"Winning should never get old," said manager Terry Francona, who skipped the festivities to fly to Virginia for his son Nick's graduation from a Marine Corps program that made him a lieutenant. "Everybody in that room knows this is not our ultimate goal, but it is still an accomplishment and you enjoy it and then you move on."

The Red Sox aren't obsessing over the possibility of a poor regular-season finish either.

"If you look at all the data that's out there, even finishing strong over the last week, two weeks, month," general manager Theo Epstein said Wednesday, "it actually has no bearing whatsoever on how the team performs in October."

Francona put it more succinctly: Momentum means "zero."

So the Red Sox are optimistic about facing the Angels for the third straight year in the AL division series starting next Wednesday or Thursday at Anaheim. The Red Sox swept the three-game playoff series in 2007 and won in four games in 2008.

"I like our chances," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who is having a very good year, though not up to his MVP season in 2008. "It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you're in."

Two years ago, the Red Sox won the AL East and swept the Colorado Rockies for their second World Series championship in four years. Last year, they made the postseason as a wild-card team and came back from a 3-1 deficit to force a seventh game in the ALCS against Tampa Bay, before losing that 3-1.

This year, they were in sole possession of first place from June 10 through July 19 when, in the midst of another five-game losing streak, they were overtaken by the New York Yankees.

The latest slide began with a three-game sweep by the Yankees, who have the best record in the majors and could face Boston in the ALCS.

"The reality is almost every year and almost every team faces some adversity," Epstein said. "It's not even real adversity. Real adversity comes in the real world outside of baseball, but this year we faced our challenges."

The Red Sox would like solid performances from their top three starters in their final regular-season outings. But it's more important that they are healthy, Epstein said.

Jon Lester struggled last Thursday before being knocked out of the game when he was hit near the right knee on a liner by New York's Melky Cabrera and sustained a bruise. Josh Beckett missed Monday's scheduled start because of back spasms but threw "62 pitches and everything went great" Wednesday, Francona said.

Buchholz had gone 6-0 in eight starts, but allowed five homers and seven runs in five innings to Toronto on Tuesday night.

One bright spot: Matsuzaka is 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA in three starts since a long stint on the disabled list due to a shoulder problem.

The bullpen, already strong, got better with the addition of Billy Wagner, who has a 2.25 ERA in 13 appearances with the Red Sox.

They might need all that pitching when they face the Angels, baseball's second highest scoring team.

"I think we're a really good club," Epstein said. "There are a lot of really good clubs out there. How we're going to play in October, no one can really answer that."

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