Red Sox face their biggest playoff test since breaking the curse

BOSTON -- The Red Sox had a team dinner in March in Florida before the season opener against the Rays. They had another one Wednesday night. Tony La Russa, a special advisor in the front office, was there telling stories. The team was relaxed. Fans at the restaurant recognized the players. The calm before the storm of October.

And, yes, they watched the New York Yankees beat the Oakland A's in the AL wild-card game.

"It was cool when you have all the big leaguers watching a baseball game," manager Alex Cora said. "From the home run in the first inning and all -- everybody was like, 'Whoa!'" Cora was referring to Aaron Judge's 116.1 mph rocket into the left-field stands. "He crushed that ball, by the way. It's different when you are sitting there and you have all the guys and you can point out a few things."

Is there anything to learn watching your rival on TV? Probably not. These teams know what to expect from each other. They've played 19 games this season. They've devoured the scouting reports and crunched the numbers. The Red Sox know Judge and the Yankees have plenty of power. The Yankees know Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez & Co. can score plenty of runs. The Yankees have the edge in the bullpen. The Red Sox have home-field advantage.

Which means this best-of-five division series is likely to come down to the performances of Chris Sale and David Price, the two veteran lefties who combined for a 28-11 record and 2.88 ERA this season. Those two come with huge question marks entering October, however. Sale has thrown just 301 pitches since the end of July and in his final start had a season-low average fastball velocity of just 90.2 mph -- 5 mph less than his season average. Price has started nine games in his postseason career, and his team has lost all nine.

After setting a franchise record with 108 wins, the expectations have never been higher for a Red Sox team that has lost two straight division series. All they have to do is beat a team that won 100 games. Sale says he's ready.

"This is everything we show up for," he said. "We don't play the game for anything else. Personal stats, wins in the regular season are obviously what get us here. And winning games and winning the division and having the record and all that, we appreciate it, don't get me wrong. We worked hard for that. We grinded for that, and we earned it. But now is the crunch time."

World Series or bust. In baseball-mad Boston, another first-round flameout -- especially to the hated Yankees -- won't cut it. Of course, the fans and the media will emphasize the rivalry and the first postseason matchup between the two franchises since the fabled 2004 AL Championship Series. The players? Not so much.

Mookie Betts was 12 years old in 2004. "I didn't watch baseball as a kid," he said. "I've seen the highlights since then."

Maybe David Ortiz regaled him with stories when they were teammates, but Betts didn't seem too willing to elaborate on the moral complexities of Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer to the ground. He did laugh when told that Yankees fans were chanting, "We want Boston!" at the end of Wednesday's game. "I'd expect that," he said. "Our fans would do the same thing."

Yankees ace Luis Severino? He was 10 years old in the Dominican Republic in 2004. "I think at that time I didn't even have TV," he said after Wednesday's game.

The teams did have a heated incident back in April, when Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly hit Yankees DH Tyler Austin in response to Austin's spikes-first slide into Brock Holt. That led to a benches-clearing mini-brawl that featured Judge towering above the pack of players, grabbing Kelly in a headlock.

Betts said that incident didn't really affect the rivalry in any way. "I feel like it would be the same even if that didn't happen," he said. In other words, we're much more likely to see a baserunner exchanging pleasantries with the first baseman than seeing Sale fighting Yankees first-base coach Reggie Willits.

"You know, that's part of the build-up with this," Sale said. "I know you guys like to make a big deal of [the history] and everything because of what's happened in the past, obviously earlier this year and all that. You have two big-time teams that played really good baseball throughout the regular season about to go head-to-head the most important time of year. If you can't get excited for that, I think you're doing the wrong thing."

So it comes down to baseball, not bad blood. Sale made his first postseason trip last year and allowed nine runs in 9 ⅔ innings against the Astros. The concerns about him center around his health and whether he was simply holding back in that last start against the Orioles, when he allowed three runs and hit two batters in 4 ⅔ innings. The concerns with Price are more about that 5.03 career ERA in the postseason and whether that is merely a small sample size fluke or something else.

Price told local media on Tuesday that he doesn't feel any different in October than any other game. "No. Honestly. Some games, you're probably going to be more amped up for other games. I think that's just common nature for everybody," he said. "I mean, I've got butterflies before every game. I've got butterflies before I pitch in spring training games. I got butterflies in spring training before I pitch on a backfield against our low-A team. You know?"

Maybe Price has wanted it too much. I've always felt that's part of the issue with Clayton Kershaw in October. You want it too much, think too much, try too hard and make a mistake at the wrong time. Even Sale admitted, "Pitching in the postseason I think everyone knows is a little bit different."

Price alluded to big innings being his big problem in the postseason. I checked his nine postseason starts:

• 2010 ALDS, Game 1: 6 ⅔ IP, 5 runs. Rangers scored in four different innings (two home runs).
• 2010 ALDS, Game 5: 6 IP, 3 runs. Rangers scored in three different innings.
• 2011 ALDS, Game 3: 6 ⅔ IP, 3 runs. Rangers scored three in the seventh (Mike Napoli, two-run homer).
• 2013 ALDS, Game 2: 7 IP, 7 runs. Red Sox scored against him in five different innings.
• 2014 ALDS, Game 3: 8 IP, 2 runs. Price's best game. Nelson Cruz hit a two-run homer in a 2-1 victory for the Orioles.
• 2015 ALDS, Game 1: 7 IP, 5 runs. Rangers scored in three innings (two home runs).
• 2015 ALCS, Game 2: 6 ⅔ IP, 5 runs. Jays led 3-2 when Royals scored five in the seventh.
• 2015, ALCS, Game 6: 6 ⅔ IP, 3 runs. Royals scored in three innings (two home runs).
• 2016, ALDS, Game 2: 3 ⅓ IP, 5 runs. The Indians scored four in the third (Lonnie Chisenhall with a three-run homer).

Price has had a couple bad innings, but the bigger problem has been home runs -- and Price allowed 25 of those in 30 starts this season. He was better in that department in the second half, allowing seven in 68 innings over 11 starts as he posted a 2.25 ERA. It's probably the best stretch of pitching he has had with the Red Sox since he signed with them in 2016.

It's Sale in Game 1 on Friday and Price in Game 2 on Saturday. They both have something to prove. If they do and the Red Sox ride those two to the World Series title, this will go down as the best team in Red Sox history.

Other than that? No pressure at all.