Monday, July 11, 2011

In next homestand, PawSox can set a tone for homestretch

The notion of a midseason respite curbing a team’s timely progression need not be applied to the Pawtucket Red Sox. They are merely on the heels of a three-game winning streak and a 7-2 hot streak at the expense of three mediocre clubs from Western New York.

Look at the International League standings. The PawSox are knotted atop the wild card leaderboard with the Gwinnett Braves, each team bearing an identical 50-41 transcript.

Conversely, Pawtucket’s latest three adversaries from Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo stand as follows: The Red Wings are a half-game removed from last place, the Bisons are 2.5 games higher and the Chiefs are a shoddy 38-50.

In the wake of two close shaves at McCoy against Buffalo―one that saw a pair of errors bite the Bisons when another pair left the PawSox alone and another that saw Pawtucket relievers Jason Rice and Randy Williams barely avoid a four-alarm flameout as they juggled with torches―it is plain that Pawtucket will not be harmed by a three-day breather.

In fact, there is only cause to argue that the PawSox need to capitalize on the All-Star Break and promptly return poised to start blowing a stronger second wind.

After all, the forthcoming slate is the polar opposite to what led them into this break. The 54-day, 52-game homestretch begins with a four-game series against the IL South-leading Durham Bulls. Overall, Durham is a mere half-game ahead of its divisional cohabitant from Gwinnett, so this series will be as good as a bout between two wild card contenders.

Come next Monday, the Bulls will give way to Lehigh Valley, currently 3.5 games ahead of Pawtucket for tops in the North. And with another four dates with the IronPigs at Coca-Cola Park to follow July 26-29, Pawtucket is by all means within lassoing distance of the divisional title.

But that’s a limited time offer. The PawSox and IronPigs shall meet no more after this month. Therefore, if Pawtucket is to afford itself any opportunity to break away from the wild card gridlock and vie for a more enticing prize, it must get the better of Lehigh Valley these next eight encounters.

Upon returning home from Pennsylvania, the Sox will face still another key series with the Louisville Bats, who are 1.5 games back in the wild card race.

Three more items jutting out on the remaining schedule:

· The Sox venture southward in the first full week of August, culminating in a wraparound weekend at Gwinnett August 12-15. The G-Braves previously reaped three out of four from McCoy in May, though there is less cause for shame from a Pawtucket standpoint considering Gwinnett is the IL’s best road team at 30-16.

Naturally, the flipside is that Gwinnett is one of the circuit’s more disappointing home teams at 20-25. Only Toledo and Rochester have disappointed their local rooters more regularly. If the PawSox can prolong that trend, it could pay dividends in the dwindling weeks of the season.

· The Columbus Clippers, owners of the IL’s best record and the only decisive divisional leader with a 9.5-game cushion in the IL West, will pay a four-night visit to McCoy as soon as the PawSox return home from Georgia.

If nothing else, getting the better of Columbus and thereby wresting away the season series would bolster Pawtucket’s confidence and rep whilst padding on its 2011 resume.

· There are still six more dates to come with the not-completely-dead Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, four on the road August 26-29 and two at McCoy prior to Labor Day.

If all goes according to plan, the PawSox will still have an edge hovering around 3.5 games when they cross paths with the Yanks again. At that point, they would have an opportunity to kick the final clod of dirt in Scranton’s faces.

Of course, to get to that point, they will have to keep devouring those Empire State cupcakes―who combine for 18 more meetings with the PawSox―the way they have this past week. Check that, with a little more consistent assertiveness.

And they’ll have to flex a little more against the IronPigs and all interdivisional forces they confront right from the very next sounds of “…home of the brave?” and “Play ball!”

With only pitcher Matt Fox engaged in All-Star activity, these next three days ought to give the PawSox the requisite sense of physical, mental, and psychological renewal.

With such parity between at least five prospective wild card teams, these next eight weeks are as good as a mini-season. It would be worth the while of everyone in Arnie Beyeler’s clubhouse to let that sink into their minds before the Bulls run in on Thursday.