There’s not a lot Terry Francona hasn’t seen in six seasons as Red Sox manager, but the last five games of the regular season are an entirely new experience for him. When the Sox clinched the wild card early Wednesday morning, it rendered the final game of the three-game series against the Blue Jays and the four-game series against the Indians completely irrelevant—or, as he called it, “cosmetic.”
There’s no AL East title up for grabs and no questions about whom the Sox will face in the AL Division Series. This marks the earliest the Sox have reached the “cosmetic” stage in a season in which they reached the playoffs under Francona.
In 2004, the Sox clinched a playoff berth with six games left and were eliminated from the AL East race with three games left. In 2005, the Sox clinched the wild card on the final day of the season. In 2007, the Sox clinched a playoff berth with seven games left and sealed the AL East with two games left. And last year, the Sox clinched a playoff berth with five games left and were eliminated from the AL East race with two games left. (In 2006, the Sox were knocked out of playoff contention with seven games to play)
“I hope we play good, because that’s why we show up,” Francona said Wednesday afternoon. “Every time we play, I want to play good…[but] the next five games are kind of cosmetic. I hope our record is better than it is worse, but these games have no bearing on what we do next week.”
The uselessness of these games, as well as the D-list lineup Francona wrote out in the aftermath of Tuesday’s late-night celebration, made for a predictably ugly game Wednesday in which Roy Halladay flirted with history and the Sox danced with ignobility. Joey Gathright’s clean single broke up Halladay’s no-hit bid in the sixth inning, but Tim Wakefield’s continued struggles and Francona’s reluctance to use his top relievers in a meaningless contest meant we were all treated to the sight of Dusty Brown becoming the team-record third position player this season—and first catcher ever—to take the mound in a game.
Not fun for Francona to witness, but, as he noted, completely irrelevant in the grand scheme. And, by the way, a whole lot better than the cosmetic nature of these games for the Jays and Indians.
The Jays entertained thoughts of competing for a playoff berth when they raced out to an AL-best 27-14 start, but reality—as well as the task of actually playing their division rivals, against whom they played just three times in those first 41 games—hit in a big way for the Jays, who are 48-71 since then—and that’s after winning nine of their last 11 games—and, reportedly, uprising against Cito Gaston.
At least the Jays’ last playoff appearance is 16 years in the rear view mirror. Imagine how depressing it’s got to be for the members of the Indians who are just shy of two years removed from having a three games to one lead on the Sox in the AL Championship Series heading into a Game Five started by eventual Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia.
The Sox, of course, didn’t lose again until 2008 while the Indians fell apart. Sabathia was dealt last July in the midst of a rotten first half and Cliff Lee—Sabathia’s successor as the Cy Young winner—and Victor Martinez were traded this year as the Indians endured an even worse season. Eric Wedge, whose uptight demeanor seemed to deaden the mood even as the Indians moved within a game of the World Series in ’07, was mercifully fired Wednesday, though he inexplicably agreed to remain the manager through the end of the season.
He’s probably wondering just why he subjected himself to five more games of this: Including tonight’s loss, the Indians are 0-3 since he was fired and have scored just two runs in 27 innings. They’ve been the perfect tonic for a Sox club that entered the series having been outscored 47-19 during a six-game losing streak.
It’s all still cosmetic, but at least it looks a little better. Of course, regardless of how the Sox fared, that would be the case anyway, since when it comes to final week ugliness, “wait ‘til next week” sounds a whole lot better than “wait ‘til next year.”