It happened in the middle of the night.
The Boston Red Sox were airborne, heading from Baltimore to Cincinnati. Maybe they exchanged a few high-fives somewhere over West Virginia. Or maybe they just slept through it. At least they will have something to toast at dinner on their night off Thursday.
But the champagne-and-beer celebration, the one in which corks fly across a room and players break out designer ski goggles? That will wait, as it should, for another time and place.
It's not that clinching a playoff berth -- as the Red Sox did Wednesday night with the combination of their 9-0 pounding of the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Angels' 6-5 loss to the Cleveland Indians -- isn't a notable accomplishment. Only 10 teams get to play beyond the regular season. To stand among them is no small feat, especially considering the Red Sox have done it in only three of the past eight years.
But after getting swept out of the playoffs in the American League Division Series last year, the Red Sox have loftier goals, such as winning the division. They lead the American League East by three games over the New York Yankees with 10 games to play. If they can close the deal next week, then it will be party time.
"Just getting into the playoffs is not our goal," manager John Farrell told reporters Wednesday night. "Certainly it’s a steppingstone toward other things that we have our sights set on, as many teams do. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Indeed, the Red Sox can't afford to take their feet off the pedal. The Yankees have won 14 of their past 18 games, forcing the Red Sox to win 11 of their past 14 just to keep the division lead from getting really uncomfortable.
"We're just worried about our business, worried about what we have to do in going out there to win games,” ace Chris Sale told reporters after becoming the first AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999 to record 300 strikeouts in a season. “I don't know what the [magic] number is. I don't know who needs to do what. I know if we keep winning games we're going to put ourselves in a good position, and that’s really all that matters to us.”
In that case, with three series remaining beginning Friday night in Cincinnati, here are a few things worth watching as the Red Sox inch closer to their first back-to-back AL East titles since divisional play began:
1. Hanley Ramirez's health and production. Remember Hanley? He went missing for four games with a cranky left biceps before pinch hitting in the ninth inning Monday night, but really, he has been AWOL for most of the season. He has dealt with sore shoulders since spring training, and it's not just the burden of being pegged as the primary power source in the post-David Ortiz era. Ramirez has 22 homers, only nine since the All-Star break, and has driven in just 58 runs. If a three-hit, three-RBI game Wednesday night is the start of a hot streak, it would change the whole dynamic of the offense.
2. The great David Price experiment. In one breath on MLB Network Radio, Farrell suggested Price could be the Red Sox's version of Andrew Miller. In the next, during a pregame session with reporters, Farrell refuted that comparison. Which is it? At this point, nobody has any idea. Price dominated in his maiden relief appearance Sunday at Tampa Bay. But over the next 10 days, the Red Sox will get a better handle on how to use Price. How often can he pitch? How long does he need to warm up? Can he enter a game with runners on base, or is he better suited to start an inning? The answers will go a long way toward determining Price's impact in October.
3. How does Eduardo Nunez fit in? It's hardly a stretch to say that Nunez and rookie third baseman Rafael Devers rescued the Red Sox. They carried the offense in August at a time when Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Ramirez were scuffling. Nunez, in particular, has eight homers in 163 at-bats since a July 26 trade from the San Francisco Giants, for whom he hit four homers in 302 at-bats. But he has been sidelined for nearly two weeks with a sprained right knee and has not yet tested the injury by running the bases. When he does return, Farrell will have to figure out how to get him in the lineup. The most logical spot would seem to be third base, where 20-year-old Devers, who has plateaued since the torrid start to his big league career, has been playing.