KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For an interesting study in avoidance behavior, mention the playoffs to pretty much any member of the Red Sox organization.
Some treat the word as if it’s Swahili. Others bulge their eyes, flare their nostrils and contemplate staking you like a vampire. A few pull the fingers-in-the-ears, “La la la, I can’t hear you!” routine.
The Good Ship Red Sox has steamed through smooth waters all season, but that doesn’t make the postseason a given. This is the same organization, after all, that got burned like Two Face in September of 2011. And while fans may not be consumed by the great collapse, those calling the shots wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t prepare for worst-case scenarios.
But here’s the good news: This isn’t 2011. Even after losing their third game in four tries to the Royals Sunday, these Sox will not fall to pieces.
Disclaimer: This isn’t to say they’re a 100 percent lock to make the playoffs. Nothing is guaranteed. Maybe they’re struck by catastrophic injuries. Maybe they run into a streak of incredibly bad luck. Maybe the Orioles and Rays catch fire.
What they will not do is choke.
An examination of the organization from top-to-bottom reveals a team that has been constructed almost as a point-by-point correction to 2011. Every issue that conspired to sink that team has been addressed, starting at the top. Just consider the following:
•Manager: By the end of 2011, manager Terry Francona would be the first to admit he was cooked. Eight years simmering in the cauldron of Boston had taken their toll, and he acknowledges losing his grip on the clubhouse. There’s no shame in reaching the end of your rope. He needed a year off, and now he’s back big with the Indians.
John Farrell, by contrast, is just getting started. He’s a great communicator, a commanding presence, and hard-wired into his clubhouse. Nothing catches Farrell off guard, and there’s no worry of him suddenly becoming detached.
•Starting depth: On the most basic level, the 2011 Sox didn’t drown in their Bud Light bottles. They collapsed because they had nowhere to turn when injuries and ineffectiveness hit their starting rotation.
That September, the Sox handed the ball to Kyle Weiland, Erik Bedard and a pre-dominant Andrew Miller for eight crucial starts, and lost six of them. So dire were their straits, they desperately tried to acquire Bruce Chen for a potential one-game playoff.
But look at them now. The Jake Peavy trade adds another veteran arm to a rotation that should get Clay Buchholz back sometime in September. Youngsters Brandon Workman, Drake Britton and Rubby De La Rosa have shown promise. Were injuries to strike the starting staff now, the Red Sox would have options.
•The clubhouse: The 2011 home quarters were neither happy nor welcoming. Josh Beckett grew increasingly selfish and aloof. Supercilious superstar Adrian Gonzalez tried to be accountable, but instead whined about everything from the strike zone to the schedule. Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield neared the end. Injured third baseman Kevin Youkilis was a black cloud.
This clubhouse couldn’t be any better. The Jonny Gomes Effect is tangible and real, but not in the rah-rah way fans might expect. Gomes isn’t a cheerleader so much as a force of will. His only focus is winning, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen. It rubs off.
Shane Victorino is the quintessential winner, thanks to his years in Philly, which also hardened him to rough media markets. Mike Napoli clearly puts the team first. Peavy and David Ross are great additions.
The default emotions on this club aren’t bitterness, anger and mistrust. The positive vibe has been evident since February.
•The second wild card: This one’s kind of obvious, but had it existed in 2011, the Red Sox would’ve lived to fight another day. They almost certainly would’ve gotten their heads handed to them by the Rays, but at least they would’ve qualified for the playoffs.
To miss the playoffs this year, they’ll not only need to lose the division, but get passed by two other contenders.
Add it all together, and it feels safe to talk about the playoffs, because the Red Sox have put themselves in a strong position to get there.