BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox didn’t mind waiting a few days to start their playoffs.
Not after missing them for the past three seasons.
Not after the September collapse that ruined their chances in 2011.
And certainly not after they stumbled to the club’s worst record in 48 years in 2012.
“This was part of the mindset at the end of last year, a strong desire to rewrite what took place,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said Thursday.
The revised edition tied the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record, was the highest scoring team in the majors and turned a toxic clubhouse into a fun-loving one that was a big reason the Red Sox had 28 more wins than they did last season.
They’ll try for their first in the playoffs today against the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener of the best-of-five AL Division Series.
“Guys in here love playing baseball,” Red Sox left fielder Jonny Gomes said. “It’s a bunch of baseball junkies, so I’m sure they’ll be happy to strap on their cleats.”
Boston ended its regular season Sunday then waited for its opponent to be determined.
Tampa Bay had to win three road games to get this far – at Toronto on Sunday to force a tiebreaker for the second AL wild-card spot, at Texas on Monday night in that tiebreaker, and at Cleveland on Wednesday night to advance to the ALDS.
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “And, moving forward, I want to believe it’s going to create some kind of different form of momentum going into this series because we’ve been playing. We’ve been playing under duress and we’re not tired.”
But the Red Sox don’t think their layoff will hurt.
“It’s just a second All-Star break for us,” Gomes said after a nearly two-hour team workout Thursday.
The Rays finished six games behind the Red Sox in the AL East but are on a roll with 10 wins in their past 12 games. And they have star left-handers Matt Moore and David Price ready to go in the first two games at Fenway Park.
Moore (17-4) is 9-1 in his past 13 starts. Price (10-8) is coming off a 5-2, complete-game win against the Rangers in the tiebreaker. In a span of eight days in late July, they combined to go 3-0 against the Red Sox in Boston with each pitching a complete game.
More bad news for the Red Sox: the Rays are 14-2 on the road when Moore starts.
“For me going into a game on the road, I try to take that as a little bit more of a challenge than when you’re at home” with support from the crowd, Moore said.
The Red Sox have a pretty good left-hander themselves set for the opener. Former Augusta GreenJacket Jon Lester (15-8) was 5-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his past eight starts.
“To be named Game 1 starter, especially after last year,” Lester said, “big honor, obviously, very excited.”
Lester had his worst season in 2012 with a 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA. Even worse was the team’s 69-93 record and clubhouse discord under Bobby Valentine, who was fired after his only season as Boston’s manager. He took over from Terry Francona after Boston went 7-20 the previous September.
“Last year was just horrendous all the way around,” Lester said.
And this year?
No losing streak longer than three games. A total of 158 days in first place. And a lineup with no easy outs.
“It’s nine guys in the lineup getting it done,” Gomes said, but “it’s a clean slate as of (Friday). So it’s zeroes across the board.”
Farrell said the righty-hitting Gomes, a platoon player, would start in left field in the first two games. He also said first-string catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and backup David Ross would split the first two games.
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who bats right-handed, could be a key against Moore and Price.
“He’s shown the ability to be streaky, and when he’s in those upticks it really lengthens our lineup,” Farrell said. “I will tell you that going up against left-handed starters, we’re going to need him.”
Middlebrooks’ position is the only spot where the Rays have an obvious edge. Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria had three hits, including his 32nd homer, in the tiebreaker in Texas.
“He comes in here swinging the bat very well,” Farrell said. “And, seemingly, in those key moments he’s come up with some big hits. So anytime we focus on one given player, it’s not so much that particular guy, it’s what we do with the guys ahead of him in the order. And if we can minimize the opportunities when he comes to the plate, we might put ourselves in a decent position.”
Both teams know each other very well, having met 19 times this season with the Red Sox winning 12.
But Maddon thinks the Rays surge just to reach the ALDS will help them.
“I want to believe the journey we’ve just gone through is going to hopefully relax our hitters a bit,” he said. “So you might see a better offensive ballclub.”