Closing Time: Red Sox complete worst-to-first turnaround by beating Blue Jays to clinch AL East

September 20, 2013 - 6:36 pm
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(First) mission: accomplished. The Red Sox beat the Blue Jays, 6-3, to claim their seventh American League East title, their first since 2007 and just their second since 1996. With 94 victories and 61 losses with seven games remaining, the Red Sox locked up the only worst-to-first transformation in team history, separating themselves from the baggage of a 69-93 campaign in 2012 with a dazzling about-face that has yielded a 25-win improvement (and counting). The formula for victory on Friday featured a trio of Red Sox staples: A relentless bulldozing of American League East opponents, an unflinching ability to spit on pitches outside of the strike zone and the ability of their own starter to dominate an opposing lineup. With the win, the Sox improved to 42-29 against AL East foes, a .592 winning percentage that is little short of mind-boggling given that four of the division's five teams have records above .500. The keys to that success? First, the Sox' grinding approach: The Red Sox knocked out starter Esmil Rogers -- who represents, in essence, the return that the Blue Jays received when they released manager John Farrell from his contract (Toronto received Mike Aviles for Farrell, and flipped the shortstop along with Yan Gomes to the Indians for Rogers) -- after just 2 1/3 innings in which the right-hander permitted two runs and walked five. The Red Sox entered the day having knocked an opposing starter out of a game prior to the end of the fifth inning on 38 occasions prior to Friday, tied with the Braves for the most such games in the big leagues. A look at the records of the top five teams in that category is illuminating (total and record is for games prior to Friday): Red Sox: 38 (93-61) Braves: 38 (91-62) Tigers: 36 (89-64) Reds: 33 (87-66) Athletics (90-63) Of those five, only the Reds are not in first place, and Cincinnati is almost a lock for a wild card spot. How about the bottom five? White Sox: 15 (60-92) Blue Jays: 16 (70-82) Cubs: 16 (64-90) Marlins: 18 (56-97) Phillies: 18 (71-81) Of those five, all but the Phillies are in last place. Meanwhile, the Red Sox received yet another dominant start, this one yet another commanding performance from left-hander Jon Lester, who has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball in the second half of the season. The left-hander worked around nine baserunners (five singles, two walks and two errors) in seven innings, logging 123 pitches, to limit Toronto to one run while striking out eight. He dazzled in moments where his teammates faltered. In the fourth, after sandwiching a walk and single around a Will Middlebrooks error, Lester worked around a bases-loaded, no-out jam by getting a 5-2-5-2 double play on which Middlebrooks redeemed himself by spearing a bounder to his right, stepping on the bag for a force and throwing a strike to the plate to start a rundown that wiped out the two lead runners, and then punching out J.P. Arencibia on a changeup. After he yielded a run in the fifth, Lester then negated a Stephen Drew error to open the sixth, striking out each of the next three batters. It was the 100th win of Lester's career. He is now the 11th player and third left-hander to reach that landmark accomplishment in his career with the Sox. That personal milestone attained, there are others in sight for the left-hander -- chiefly, the forthcoming opportunity for him to pitch in the postseason, with an obvious possibility that he could command responsibility for the Sox' Game 1 start in the American League Division Series. WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX -- Lester matched a career high with his ninth straight quality start, while setting a new career standard with nine straight games in which he hasn't allowed a homer. His 2.30 ERA in the second half is the best of his career for any half, surpassing his 2.78 mark prior to the All-Star break in 2010. He ranks fourth in the AL in ERA since the All-Star break, trailing only Ubaldo Jimenez (1.77), Anibal Sanchez (2.03) and Jarred Cosart (2.25). -- After Junichi Tazawa faltered in the eighth, Koji Uehara recorded five outs without permitting a run, just the fourth time all year he had been asked to handle such a workload. He recorded his 20th save of the year. -- Mike Carp continued to excel in limited playing time, drawing a bases-loaded walk to drive in one run and lining a two-run single to left. He's now hitting .352 (19-for-54) with runners in scoring position this year. -- Jarrod Saltalamacchia's 2-for-4 day included a double down the left field line, the catcher's 38th two-bagger of the year. He's currently one shy of the Red Sox record for most doubles in a season, a mark shared by Jason Varitek and Carlton Fisk. -- Dustin Pedroia went 3-for-5 with a double, a run and an RBI) to lift his average back up over .300, while Jackie Bradley Jr. had his second straight multi-hit game (and third of his career). WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX -- Junichi Tazawa continued to get hit hard, allowing two runs on three hits, including a double and a homer. Tazawa has given up an extra-base hit in 20 of his appearances this year, tied for the third highest total among big league relievers, and he's given up multiple extra-base hits in six contests, tied for the most such relief appearances in the big leagues. Opponents are hitting .261 with a .291 OBP and .447 slugging mark. -- Don't get too picky. They won the division.

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