Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Despite recent fall, Sox can still celebrate

Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox should have saved the celebrating for the AL Division Series. Photo from this site.

The Red Sox clinched the John Blake Cup—and with it the American League wild card—in perhaps the most anticlimactic fashion possible early this morning, when, hours after the Sox dropped their fifth in a row (albeit after a frenzied comeback against the Blue Jays fell one run short), the Rangers were eliminated from contention with a 5-2 loss to the Angels.

Terry Francona said he wasn’t planning to stick around to watch the Rangers game, but apparently a lot of the Sox players did and whooped it up once the Angels won. Which, quite frankly, strikes me as somewhat lame. Clinch the berth on the field, or clinch it by virtue of a Rangers loss a few hours after a Sox win? Party until dawn. Watching the Sox clinch the AL East by watching the Yankees lose to the Orioles on the final Friday of the 2007 season—and the subsequent celebration—was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever experienced as a sportswriter.

But celebrating a wild card berth clinched hours after a loss seems a little excessive. Of course, the Yankees celebrated a division title earned in alternately similar yet far worse fashion in 2000, when they were in the midst of losing 15 of their final 18 games, and things turned out pretty well for them, so what do I know?

(And this may be of interest only to me, but the Sox’ decision to celebrate without allowing the media—not even the NESN cameras—into the clubhouse is a fascinating one, one that perhaps symbolizes not only the Sox’ continuing desire to conduct even the most routine of business in private fashion but also an ever-increasing divide between the franchise and the media. I smell the extra chapter in the paperback version of Fighting Words…but don’t wait, order the hardcover now!)

Even though they qualified following a loss, I don’t think for a second the Sox backed into the playoffs. A team that loses seven of nine games and still makes the playoffs with five days to spare didn’t back in, it merely earned the berth by distancing itself from the rest of the field weeks earlier. I’m willing to chalk this stumble up to human nature—with the Rangers in the midst of a toxic stretch in which they’ve lost 12 of 18 games, including eight by at least five runs, there was no sense of urgency to the final lap of the wild card pursuit—as well as the Sox running into the buzz saw Yankees last weekend.

Still, it’s natural to grow a bit skeptical about the Sox in light of their recent hiccups. But having learned my lesson multiple times this year about burying the Yankees too early or declaring the sky was descending upon the Sox, I figured I’d try the middle-of-the-road approach and research how teams that stumbled into the playoffs fared once they got there.

Except, well, someone beat me to it, and did a bang-up job in the process. Lisa Swan at The Faster Times (link found courtesy of's Circling the Bases blog) ran the post-Sept. 1 numbers on all of this decade’s playoff teams and notes that two playoff teams that played sub-.500 ball after September 1—the 2000 Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals—went on to win the World Series while none of the 10 playoffs teams that played .700 ball after Sept. 1 won it all. In fact, the only team that hot to make it to the World Series was the 2007 Rockies, who of course lost to the Sox in a four-game sweep.

Bob Harkins of notes that the idea that a team has to be hot in September in order to win the World Series probably stems from the fact that of the four champions to play .600 or better ball in September, three were wild cards—the 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins and the 2004 Sox.

As usual, the truth is a little different than perception. Swan’s research reveals the average post-Sept. 1 winning percentage for eventual World Series winners is .586, a smidge lower than the .596 winning percentage recorded by World Series losers.

The Red Sox’ winning percentage thus far this month, courtesy of Harkins? .555. Not great, not awful and, as Harkins also notes, not relevant at all come the first pitch of the Division Series. Especially since—and this is me writing, not Harkins or Swan—the Sox are playing the Angels, which gives the Sox a pretty damn good shot at earning a second and far more appropriate champagne-fueled celebration.

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