NEW YORK — As the Yankees streamed onto the field from the clubhouse, the bullpen and the dugout to celebrate their first division title since 2006, several members of the Red Sox remained behind in the dugout to take stock of the festivities.
There was no masking the obvious: the Yankees had put the finishing touch on a remarkable regular season. New York’s 4-2 win on Sunday in Yankee Stadium (recap) gave the team 100 victories in 2009 — a massive number given the brutally competitive American League East. The Yankees can make a legitimate claim to having been the best team in baseball during the regular season.
Though the Sox were left to watch the Yankees celebrate a tremendous accomplishment, they remained unbowed.
“I don’t really give a crap about what they’ve done. I’m worried about kind of what we’re doing,” Sox catcher Jason Varitek said matter-of-factly after having calmly glimpsed a bit of the Yankees' on-field celebrations after the game. “I don’t think it’s time for us to hang our heads, to be honest with you.
“We’ve got an opportunity to move forward and get ourselves a chance to play in the postseason. That’s all you want: a chance. You don’t want to see [the Yankees celebrate] on your watch, but fact of the matter is we have hope.”
In the Sox clubhouse after the game, players did not seethe. They did not mourn.
It is one thing to watch champagne corks fly in late October, quite another to see a team enjoy itself in late September after winning the division. The Sox considered it anything but a devastating development to watch the Yankees celebrate on their home turf.
In all likelihood, Boston will enjoy its own festivities back at Fenway Park in the coming days. With the Rangers suffering a 7-6 loss to the Rays on Sunday, the Sox’ magic number is now 2, and they could sew up a wild card berth as soon as Monday.
“We’re going to be celebrating something sooner rather than later,” said outfielder Jason Bay. “It wasn’t like it was a stunning revelation that just happened. [The Yankees] just played a better series than we did and it resulted in them clinching the division. Now we have to take care of our business and get ourselves a playoff spot and do the same. I don’t think it was more insult to injury. You get swept, and that was the result.”
Because the Sox have the experience of winning the World Series as both a wild card and division winning team, they have the luxury of perspective. Four teams have won the World Series as the wild card during the 14 years of the current playoff format (though, it is worth noting, none since the 2004 Red Sox).
The team — which has spent much of the last week beginning to rest players to keep them fresh and strong come the start of the playoffs — hardly dwells on how it gets into the playoffs, so long as it gets there.
The AL East title was viewed by the players as a point of pride, but with only limited practical benefit, foremost in a home-field advantage. Certainly, the Sox will not apologize for how they punch a ticket to October, so long as they do so.
“I was a wild card once and got a Series. That means I don’t care,” said David Ortiz. “The wild card has been dangerous the last  years I guess.”
That being the case, the Sox were by and large willing to tip their collective caps to the Yankees for a spectacular regular season. Certainly, it was a profound mode of separation from the disappointment of having missed the 2008 playoffs. New York has gone 85-39 in its last 124 games, establishing itself clearly as the most dominating team in baseball during the regular season.
“I think I actually made the comment that they probably got aggravated and that they’d spend a billion. I was only half-right,” mused Sox manager Terry Francona. “They’ve got a good team. It’s an unbelievable regular season.”
Whether similar accolades greet the Yankees — or, for that matter, the Sox — in late October remains to be seen.
Here are four other lessons on a day when the Sox headed back to Boston with their own visions of a party in their home park:
THE SOX GOT SMOKED BY THE YANKEES IN THE SECOND HALF … BUT THEY INSIST IT DOESN’T MATTER
For the first half of the year, the Yankees had to endure questions about whether and why the Red Sox owned them. That now seems like a very long time ago.
The Sox suffered the ignominy of a three-game sweep in New York, as well as losses in nine of the last 10 meetings between the two teams. The Yankees were relieved by the turn of events, which was largely responsible for the team’s separation from the Sox.
“They were very difficult on us the first half of the season. It was frustrating. We had to answer questions about it and our guys got frustrated about answering questions about it,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “The way we were able to turn that around was important for this club.”
Though the Yankees — after losing each of the first eight games this year to the Red Sox — manhandled Boston down the stretch, the Sox insist that the one-sided conclusion of the regular-season series is hardly cause for alarm should the two teams meet in October.
“The playoffs are a different beast,” said Mike Lowell. “There’s too many swings [in a playoff series] to worry about, ‘Hey, they beat us nine out of the last 10.’ I don’t think that’s a factor at all.”
Several players in both clubhouses suggested that it would come as little surprise for the two teams to meet again in the ALCS. If that happens, the Sox said, the one-sided nature of the series in the second half will not creep into their thinking.
“If you stick with that, it’s not going to help. Like sometimes, you can see when we play the Angels, it seems like they’re thinking about all the damage we have done in the past,” said Ortiz. “It’s something that you don’t think about. I personally turn the page. Every time I play a team that beat us before, I just want to beat them back. That’s how the games go.”
Sox starter Paul Byrd turned to prior experience to illustrate the point.
In 2005, the pitcher was a member of the Angels. With three weeks left in the regular season, his club creamed the White Sox, outscoring Chicago by a 22-11 count over a three-game sweep. That memory remained fresh when the two teams met in the American League Championship Series.
“We said to ourselves, ‘We really hope we face that team in the playoffs,’ ” Byrd said. “We played them in the playoffs, and we couldn’t touch any of their pitchers. It was totally different. They walked right through us and won the World Series and only lost one game the whole postseason. You’ve got to get hot at the right time.
“You can’t say, ‘They beat us two weeks ago, so they’ve got our number.’ That’s not the case at all. You want to be celebrating on the backside [of the season]. That’s the bottom line.”
Of course, the idea that anything can happen in a short series — thus making regular-season trends largely irrelevant — is commonly held throughout the game. That said, the Sox likely will have to reverse some of their 2009 patterns if they do hope to win a title.
That is not just true of the Yankees’ second-half dominance of Boston. Now that the Yankees have officially closed out the division, the Sox know that they will have to be able to win against playoff opponents on the road. The Sox finished with a 39-42 road record in 2009.
More glaringly, the team went 18-28 on the road against teams that currently have records of .500 or better. Overall, the Sox were 12-19 in the second half against teams with records of .500 or better.
MARTINEZ WILL NOT THREATEN DIMAGGIO
Victor Martinez took no time to make himself a mainstay of the Red Sox lineup. Since joining his new club in Baltimore on Aug. 1, Martinez has played in 51 of the Sox’ 53 games, tied with Dustin Pedroia for second most on the team. Of those contests, Martinez has spent more than half (28) squatting and handling the game’s most demanding position.
Indeed, among players who have spent at least half their games behind the plate this year, Martinez has played far and away the most in the majors (149 games). While some of his workload has been at the less-taxing position of first base, his constancy in the lineup is nonetheless remarkable.
Martinez always has been an everyday player in every sense of the word, having averaged 149 games a season with the Indians from 2005-07. He currently is in sniffing distance of his career high of 153 games, set in 2006.
With all of that being the case, the Sox opted to give Martinez a rare breather on Sunday, leaving him out of the starting lineup after 10 straight days in it. When Sox manager Terry Francona broached the subject with his catcher, it immediately became clear that the idea was worth pursuing.
“When he accepts a day off, I know he needs it, because he’s fought me the last couple of times,” Francona said. “[Saturday] night he didn’t fight me, so I think it’s probably a good idea.”
Martinez did enter Sunday’s contest as a pinch-hitter for Jason Varitek, representing the tying run, in the ninth inning. He hit a broken-bat grounder to second that Robinson Cano muffed while trying to make a spinning play.
Martinez reached on what was ruled an error, thus ending his 25-game hitting streak, tied for the 11th-longest in Sox history. He had no beef with the ruling.
“Whatever [the official scorer ruled the play], that’s what it is,” Martinez said. “[The hitting streak] was fun, man. At the same time, I was helping my team somehow, getting on base or whatever. … I was just trying to help my team. If it happened, it happened. If it don’t, it don’t. I’m cool with it.”
Martinez hit .358 with a .425 OBP and .909 OPS during the streak. Ordinarily, the fatigue of catching can manifest itself with more swings and misses at this stage of the season, but during his hitting streak, Martinez struck out just 10 times (the same number of times he walked).
It is in many ways remarkable that Martinez has been so strong down the stretch despite his workload. Across the board, Martinez’ numbers in September rank second for any month of this season, with his average (.373), OBP (.441), slugging (.506) and OPS (.947) all his best since April. As it turns out, the development is par for the course for Martinez, who is a career .318 hitter with a .398 OBP and .864 OPS in September.
“Physically, I feel pretty good,” Martinez said. “We’re getting to the last week of the season, and we’re still battling.”
Martinez himself is not just battling but thriving. His performance suggests a hitter who manages to figure out a way to adapt his game when the grind of a season is at its weightiest.
“He’s a good hitter. I thought I saw a couple of days where he was wearing down. But he’d either manage late in the game, because he’s a smart, good hitter, to put a good swing on the ball and get a hit — a big hit,” Francona said. “Some guys just have an ability to get the bat head to the ball, even when they know they’re getting a little long or a little tired. He has that ability. He’s done a good job, because he expends a lot of energy during the game. He’s a pretty vocal, pretty emotional player.”
Of course, Martinez’ break will be short-lived. On Monday, Francona plans to have him back behind the dish to catch Josh Beckett for the right-hander’s second straight start.
THE BYRD IN HAND HAS DELIVERED VALUE
Paul Byrd pitched well enough to beat the Yankees on Sunday with his unique act. He attacked the vaunted New York lineup, firing 65-of-91 pitches (71 percent) for strikes. He showed enough life on his pitches — his fastball, cutter, change and slider — to keep the Pinstripes unbalanced for most of the day.
When he left the game with two outs and two on in the sixth inning, he owned a 2-1 advantage. He nearly did what Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka have all been unable to do in the second half of the season: beat the Yankees.
It didn’t happen, of course, when Takashi Saito allowed both of his inherited runners to score. Even so, Byrd suggested that while he is unhappy with his results (most notably, his 1-3 record), he is pleased with the way he is pitching.
“[Sox pitching coach] John Farrell has got me twisting, rotating a little bit more. It’s been phenomenal for me,” Byrd said. “I’m throwing the ball [at speeds in the] upper 80s. I threw 90 two times the last game in the sixth inning. On teams past, I hit 90 and we throw a team party. My velocity is up. My location is up. I feel like no one is squaring the ball up too often.”
The Sox are 3-3 in Byrd’s six starts. Though his first effort, when he tossed six shutout innings to beat Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays, was his most impressive, the right-hander still gave his team a consistent chance to win, even against playoff-bound opponents such as the Angels (against whom the Sox won when Byrd started) and Yankees.
The Sox signed Byrd at the beginning of August for a prorated $1.25 million base salary, with bonuses for every start that he made. Assuming Jon Lester makes his start on Thursday, then Sunday could have represented Byrd’s last start of the regular season. If that is the case, Byrd’s take for the regular season will have been roughly $475,000.
At that cost, one can make a case that Byrd was the Sox’ best value-for-money free agent pitcher signed by the Sox in 2009. The Sox have won one more game started by Byrd than they did with John Smoltz on the hill. In eight starts, Smoltz went 1-5, and the Sox went 2-6 in his outings before releasing him in early August after having spent roughly $7 million on the former Brave.
Byrd, meanwhile, remains, and the right-hander believes that he could be a useful contributor in the postseason, perhaps as a long man in the bullpen (a role that Byrd served for the Sox in the ALCS last year). He acknowledges that the Sox have a deep and talented staff, but the 38-year-old — who is 3-1 with a 5.40 ERA in eight career playoff appearances — believes he can contribute.
“Can I help the team in the postseason? Absolutely. Do I have the experience? Absolutely. Am I throwing the ball well right now? Yes, I believe so, despite giving up a few runs,” Byrd said. “I’m here to help out in any way I can. If that means I cheerlead the first series and get ready for the second series, or if it means vice versa, I’m here to help this team win in any way I can and get a ring. That’s just the bottom line.”
THE BULLPEN HAS NOT BEEN OVERUSED … BUT IT ALSO HAS NOT BEEN EFFECTIVE OF LATE
On Friday, Hideki Okajima left the Red Sox to receive acupuncture treatment in Boston. It was with the team’s blessing that the valuable southpaw went to visit a trusted specialist for his sore right side.
“He really believes in the acupuncture and he’s done it many times many times in the past with this certain guy,” Francona said. “I’m glad he’s not just going out to 7th Street and doing that.”
The Sox were somewhat surprised when Okajima returned to the team on Saturday, as club officials had suggested that he could remain in Boston, since the team did not plan on having him pitch during the weekend series in New York.
The Sox will follow a conservative course with getting the pitcher back on the mound for the first time since Sept. 23. Francona suggested that Okajima might see game activity again “in the next couple of games.”
“What I’d hate to do is give him the three days off to feel good and then rush him back to a game and go backwards, so we’ll be pretty careful with him,” Francona said. “What’s happened in the past is it seems like every September we run into a week where he needs a little bit of a blow, maybe for various reasons. And then once we get to where we want to go, we can really lean on him. I think that’s what we’re hoping.”
Okajima has already set a career high in appearances this year, his 67 games having eclipsed his prior high of 66 set in his rookie season of 2007. But the 33-year-old has thrown just 60 innings, nine fewer than the 69 he logged in his first season in the States.
Indeed, with just one week left in the regular season, it appears that the Sox have achieved manageable workloads for all the members of their bullpen. Aside from Okajima’s new personal standard in appearances, no other Sox reliever (aside from rookie Daniel Bard) will exceed their career highs in either innings or games. (See chart.)
As is the case with Okajima following this breather, the Sox hope that, come the playoffs, their relievers will be healthy and rested enough to assume the postseason load.
Though the team believes that its relievers have been used in a fashion that should ensure the group’s productivity into October, however, the Sox bullpen has struggled in September, including in Sunday’s game.
Saito, who entered with a 2-1 lead in the sixth, allowed both of his inherited runners to score, while Daniel Bard gave up a home run (albeit a made-for-Yankee Stadium shot by Mark Teixeira that barely cleared the fence in right-center).
The Sox bullpen now has a 5.06 ERA in September.