With nine games left until the postseason -- which the Red Sox are all but certain to be a part of, despite their recent slump -- an identity test awaits.
It starts with three games at Tropicana Field this weekend, and concludes with a six-game homestand at Fenway next week against the Athletics and Twins to finish out the 162-game slate.
Who are these 2007 Boston Red Sox?
"This is where the team has to pull together," said Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo. "From now on, you're going to see who's who. This is the time you see who is who -- right now. That's it."
The Red Sox led the American League East by a season-high 11 1/2 games on July 5. It is now down to 1 1/2 games against a ridiculously hot Yankees team.
Merely winning the division isn't so much the point. The key, after all, is simply to qualify for postseason. And with the Red Sox seven games better than the Tigers -- who are second to the Yankees in the AL Wild Card standings -- that is all but a fait accompli.
It's just that the incredible shrinking lead is a sign of lost momentum. And that's something the Red Sox know they must get back before it's too late.
Sure, there are exceptions. The 2000 Yankees were a disaster in the final month of that season and went on to win The World Series. Just last year, the Tigers stumbled badly in the final week of the season and won the AL pennant. But it's not something you want to rely on.
"Obviously you'd like some momentum going into the playoffs, but the whole key is actually getting into the playoffs," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "Don't get me wrong, I want to win the division probably more than anybody. That's part of the goal is to win the division. Right now, we just need to put our sights on winning that division and go out and execute and do it."
Third baseman Mike Lowell was on a World Series championship team with the Marlins in 2003, and he remembers what it was like to peak at just the right time. In other words, time is of the essence for the Red Sox if they are to do the same thing.
"I think we definitely want to change things around these last nine games," said Lowell. "I don't think anyone is happy with the way we're playing. We still have a chance to do a lot of good things. Nine games left, we have a chance to turn things around and finish on a good note. Whatever that might mean playoff-wise, I don't know. We definitely don't want to play the way [we played] these last three games."
|"This is where the team has to pull together. From now on, you're going to see who's who. This is the time you see who is who -- right now. That's it."|
|-- Julio Lugo|
The last three games, the Red Sox were swept in Toronto. They didn't hit in the clutch -- or much at all -- and the bullpen faltered. It was a bad combination, and not indicative of the way things have gone for the team this season. Before that, there was the tough series against the Yankees at Fenway in which the Sox lost two out of three.
"The thing is, everything has gone wrong these past five or six days," said Red Sox captain Jason Varitek. "We've pitched great and not hit. We've not pitched so well, we've hit. There's been multiple different things that have happened. Those happen when you're not winning games. For us to win games, we've got get those things turned around."
It would also help to get some healthy hitters. Manny Ramirez has missed 21 games in a row with a strained left oblique. Kevin Youkilis has missed the last four games with a painful bruise on his right wrist that stemmed from being hit by a Chien-Ming Wang fastball. Coco Crisp, who has played superb defense all year in center field, is currently hobbled with a bad back. David Ortiz has been playing with a tear in his right knee all year and might take a rest against Scott Kazmir on Friday night.
"We're without some guys we've counted on all year, we can't hide that," said Lowell. "We've run into some pretty good pitching. That being said, we can still play better."
Thursday's off-day, which figures to be spent by many players either pool-side or beachside in the greater Tampa area, couldn't come at a better time.
"It will be good for us," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "Part of me wants to play, because you want to get back on the right track. We'll take the day off, regroup and get some guys some much-needed rest and some other guys some medical attention."
And then, the Red Sox will send their best pitcher to the hill in Josh Beckett. Beckett has been their rock all year. He will go for his Major League-leading 20th win in this one. In fact, the Red Sox, who have lost four in a row, have not won since Beckett last took the ball.
But the opponent is Kazmir, he of the golden left arm that has stifled the Red Sox so many times in the past.
From a pure psychological standpoint, Friday just might wind up being the biggest game the Red Sox have played to date in '07.
|"Obviously you'd like some momentum going into the playoffs, but the whole key is actually getting into the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, I want to win the division probably more than anybody. That's part of the goal is to win the division. Right now, we just need to put our sights on winning that division and go out and execute and do it."|
|-- Jonathan Papelbon|
"How good of a team you end up being so often is how you handle adversity," said Francona. "We'll handle it. It's not a lot of fun to lose. It can get frustrating. But how you handle that frustration goes a long way towards how you'll end up doing."
The Red Sox are fortunate in the sense that they have veteran leaders to send messages during times like these. In 2003, when things were going bad and the general public began to panic, it was Mike Timlin -- and not Kevin Millar -- that had the original Cowboy Up T-shirts printed up for everyone on the team. Four years later, the veteran reliever -- still entrenched as a leader on the team -- looks at things in a similar manner.
"I have to help everyone do the same thing I do and have a reliever's mentality -- shake it off," said reliever Timlin. "It's over. We can't change it. We lost. Move on. Take our day off [Thursday]. Relax. Regroup. Play the best we can against Tampa. That's all you can do."
And get back a winning feeling.
"It's important," said Timlin. "You need to have momentum going into the playoffs. Every team does. Every team that doesn't, unless they really turn it on after Oct. 1, usually they stutter a little bit. You can't stutter in the playoffs."
The goal for the Red Sox coming down the stretch is to not learn that lesson the hard way.
"I think there's a level of pride in here that I think we still want a chance to win that division," Varitek said. "We want to be able to do that along with ultimately being in the postseason. But ultimately, even before that, we want to play good baseball. We want to fine tune and execute things."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.