Exactly four years ago Thursday -- the last time the Red Sox were definitively planning for a postseason run -- the landscape was a bit different.
Jon Lester had just improved to 10-0 lifetime against the Orioles with another win. Terry Francona's team was six games behind the Yankees in the American League East race, but had a comfortable seven-game advantage in the wild card race. The Red Sox didn't have to worry about the cellar-dwelling Orioles, or missing out on the playoffs.
Now, 1,460 days later, some things have changed. Others haven't.
Since the end of that '09 season, the Red Sox are just 30-39 against the Orioles, the latest sense of vulnerability against the potential playoff opponent having come with a 5-3, 12-inning loss Wednesday night.
But while the perception of the Orioles might have changed for the Red Sox, the kind of decisions and evaluation that loomed in '09 are still dominating conversation over at Fenway Park these days. Then it was whether or not to carry Tim Wakefield on the postseason roster (they didn't) or a third catcher (they didn't) or a dedicated pinch-runner (Joey Gathright made it).
There was the need to monitor the health of Rocco Baldelli (leg) and Alex Gonzalez (right hand), while deciding whether to let youngsters like Junichi Tazawa hang around with the team for the sake of experience.
Now, with nine regular-season games to go, the Red Sox are back in it. Decisions have to be made, and a tone needs to be set. That's why it's worth keeping a sharp eye on what will unfold in these final tilts against the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rockies.
Here are some things to which you might want to pay attention.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RYAN DEMPSTER
Red Sox manager John Farrell wouldn't commit to Dempster making his next scheduled start (which would be in Colorado), and the pitcher said prior to Wednesday night's game he hadn't been informed of what may lie ahead. But all signs point to Dempster joining the bullpen for the postseason, taking up a role he hasn't filled since 2007.
While the righty's integration into the 'pen won't come as a surprise considering the starting rotation's depth, what might take some off guard is the Red Sox' reliance on Dempster as a potential high-leverage reliever.
It appears as though if and when Dempster is asked to serve in a relief role, the 36-year-old will be doing so under the guise of being a weapon, rather than a safety net. The team looks at Dempster as a guy who can get key outs in the late innings, a notion made more plausible considering his experience as a closer with the Cubs.
Of particular interest is Dempster's ability to get lefties out, especially early on in his outings. The righty -- who has pitched well in his last two outings (three earned runs in 12 innings) -- has limited left-handed batters to a .232 batting average. But, even more impressive is the .193 batting average from lefties in the first inning.
THE LEAD-IN TO KOJI
The need for Dempster to serve a purpose in the bullpen underscores the continued uncertainty the Red Sox face in regards to their path to closer Koji Uehara.
In reality, it probably isn't as bad as it seems. This month, Red Sox relievers have a collective .631 OPS against in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, a far cry from the .934 mark held by the Tigers or Oakland's .856.
Craig Breslow has been really good, allowing four hits and one run in nine innings of work this month. Junichi Tazawa looks somewhat revitalized, with his fastball drawing a .182 batting average against in September. And, up until his 12th-inning hiccup Wednesdy night, Franklin Morales' downhill, mid-90s fastball and drop-in curve appeared better than they have all season.
But Brandon Workman's high-leverage existence might be morphing back into something carrying a little less importance after some recent bumps in the road. Still, if there is any sign the rookie can use the last nine games to rediscover more consistent effectiveness, it could go a long way for Farrell and Co.
FINDING THE 11TH PITCHER
Farrell reiterated Wednesday that it is likely the Red Sox will go with 11 pitchers in the best-of-five American League Division Series, one more than they have typically utilized in previous ALDS appearances.
We know this: Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lackey will pitch the series' first three games, with Jake Peavy likely getting the start in Game 4. (Peavy took significant strides forward with his new arm angle while turning in seven solid innings Wednesday.)
As noted, signs point to the Red Sox eyeing Dempster for a useful bullpen role. That's five.
Then you have a group of relievers that include Uehara, Tazawa, Breslow, Morales and Workman. That's 10.
What this seemingly comes down to is the confidence that Felix Doubront's success against left-handed hitters (.640 OPS against, one home run) can translate into a relief role. The lefty, who will get another start, told WEEI.com that he doesn't believe he is equipped to thrive in a bullpen role at the moment, but there might not be another option.
Doubront has relieved before (in '10), and the other lefties in the mix -- Matt Thornton and Drake Britton -- haven't been able to instill much confidence of late. Thornton has allowed four of the last eight left-handed batters he's faced to reach, while Britton has only pitched twice this month.
WILL OUTFIELD DEPTH BE A CONCERN?
Shane Victorino is banged up all over the place -- back, hamstring and, as was evidenced Wedneday night, right hand. But as one clubhouse voice said after the Red Sox' latest loss, "I have no doubt Shane will rise up."
The same is expected of Jacoby Ellsbury (foot), who expressed optimism about a return in the regular season when speaking with the media Wednesday. (There have been other examples of players being dropped successfully back into the lineup just before the postseason after missing most of September and delivering impacting playoff performances. Most notably for the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez in 2007 and J.D. Drew in 2008 both emerged as postseason forces after seeing little action in the final month of the regular season.)
But what if either Ellsbury or Victorino takes a turn for the worse in the midst of a postseason game?
Because of the Red Sox' roster flexibility, they should be able to get by with the presence of Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava and Quintin Berry. It is this position where the days off prior to any postseason series will undoubtedly have the most affect.
And for those wondering if Berry is a lock, just look at the way Farrell has used him, and will use him. He has attempted only one stolen base but has scored four runs while totaling just three at-bats. He is a difference-making weapon, and if you can afford one of those on your postseason roster, you don't shy away from it.
HOW WILL XANDER BOGAERTS BE USED?
Bogaerts certainly has acquitted himself well in his call-up to date, hitting .286 with a .779 OPS while performing smoothly at both shortstop and third base. But will he get any run in the postseason?
Farrell made it clear once again Wednesday night that Stephen Drew is going to hit against righties and lefties, no matter the situation. It doesn't matter right now if Drew is hitting .183 against left-handers (1-for-16 this month). He is going to be the Red Sox' postseason shortstop.
But with the up and downs of Will Middlebrooks at third, could Bogaerts find his way to some postseason at-bats at third? As of now, that's not the way it's trending. But if Bogaerts catches fire down the stretch, and Middlebrooks (who snapped an 0-for-17 stretch with an impressive three-hit game in his return to the lineup Wednesday) takes a turn for the worse, it becomes an interesting conversation heading into October.