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Monday, September 16, 2013
Red Sox haven't finished to-do list

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox will clinch their first AL East division title since 2007 sometime this week at home, barring a sudden reversal of fortune unlike any they have experienced this season.

The Sox are the only team in baseball to have no losing streaks longer than three games. There have been 147 streaks of four losses or more this season; last season, the Sox had 11 such streaks, including a season-ending eight-game streak that was their longest of the year.

Even the World Series winners of 2004 and 2007 cannot make that claim. The '07 Sox had three four-game losing streaks, while the '04 team had a season-long five-game losing streak and two other four-game slides.

The earliest the Sox can clinch the division is Wednesday, and that would require losses on Tuesday and Wednesday by the Tampa Bay Rays, who are at home against the Texas Rangers, the team they would meet in a one-game wild-card play-in if the standings were to remain as they were Monday night.

So, what should the Red Sox be looking to accomplish in their remaining 11 games? Here are a few things:

Clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs

The Sox began Monday with a three-game lead over the Oakland Athletics, who just swept the Rangers in Texas to open a big lead in the AL West. The Athletics may have the easier schedule; they have five games left against the Los Angeles Angels, a team they've beaten nine times in 13 meetings, and three against the Minnesota Twins, who have the third-worst record in the AL.

The Red Sox, by contrast, have six games left against the Baltimore Orioles, a team still fighting for a place in the playoffs and that leads the season series against the Sox by a 7-6 margin.

With the AL winning the All-Star Game, the Sox would have home-field advantage in the World Series too.

Get Ellsbury back on the field by next week

Both the Red Sox and agent Scott Boras have expressed confidence that Jacoby Ellsbury, out with a small fracture in the navicular bone in his right foot, will return before the end of the regular season. It obviously would be useful for Ellsbury to see some game action before the start of the playoffs in order to regain his timing at the plate and learn whether he can trust his foot to keep from impeding him on the basepaths, where he leads the majors in steals.

Stretch out Buchholz to 100-110 pitches

The early returns have been extremely encouraging for Clay Buchholz, who has won both of his starts after returning from a 94-day absence because of bursitis in his shoulder. He threw 91 pitches against the New York Yankees in six innings Sunday, so he is close to being able to go deep into games.

Franklin Morales
Could Franklin Morales be the power lefty that's been missing out of the Red Sox bullpen?
But there were some rough edges Sunday. Buchholz walked four and hit a batter, putting the lead runner on base in four innings, and acknowledged he had issues with his fastball command. Nothing wrong with his secondary pitches, though, especially his cutter, as he got a dozen swing-and-misses, nine by right-handed hitters, and nine ground-ball outs. Still, some added arm strength headed into October would be welcome.

Sort through setup options

The Red Sox will go into October depending on Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow to get most of the big outs in the seventh and eighth innings. Beyond that, Farrell has to decide which pitchers will be most dependable, especially on the postseason stage.

Brandon Workman certainly has had his moments, but that's asking a lot of a rookie; the same applies to Drake Britton. Franklin Morales has shown signs of becoming the power lefty in the pen missing since Andrew Miller went down for the season with a foot injury. Matt Thornton has yet to curry faith since coming over from the Chicago White Sox.

At some point Farrell will integrate starters into the pen, but that may not come until the end of the regular season. Big decisions need to be made regarding the October roles of Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, for example.

Rest some regulars

Lots of guys on this team have been dealing with physical issues, some all season. The comfortable lead should afford John Farrell a chance to give some time off to Shane Victorino, who has been playing with a bad hamstring all season; Mike Napoli, for whom a cortisone shot gave welcome relief to the plantar fasciitis in his foot; Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who played at least a month with a sore back; and even David Ortiz, who at 37 could use a break just on general principle. Even closer Koji Uehara, who has retired 37 batters in a row, likely will see a reduction in workload, especially once the Sox clinch.

Avoid any more injuries

This is the part over which the Red Sox have the least control. Josh Beckett's oblique injury in 2008 may well have kept the Sox from repeating as champions; and going back further, Sox fans are still haunted by the what-might-have-beens after Vern Ruhle hit Jim Rice with a pitch, fracturing his hand days before the end of the 1975 regular season, knocking him out of the postseason.