'October Ready' Red Sox must show they learned from 2016 sweep

BOSTON -- The slogan on the shirts that were draped over each chair in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse Tuesday could serve as both a mantra and a reminder for the players who occupied the room.

"October Ready."

A year ago, the Red Sox were far from ready for what they encountered in October. From the boisterous crowds in Cleveland to the detail of the Indians' game plan and just the sheer magnitude of the moment, they were overwhelmed in a three-game sweep of an American League Division Series that ended almost as soon as it began.

In particular, it was the least experienced of the Red Sox who seemed to be impacted the most. Mookie Betts went 2-for-10 in the series, Jackie Bradley Jr. was 1-for-10 with seven strikeouts, Sandy Leon 1-for-10 with five strikeouts, and Xander Bogaerts 3-for-12, with two of his hits coming in the final game.

Looking back, manager John Farrell calls it "an eye-opener." But the Red Sox were humbled, plain and simple, right from the very first inning. And 12 months later, with the dawning of another Division Series, we're about to find out if they learned any lessons.

"I think we learned that it's the same game. Don't make it what it's not," Betts said. "Just go out and have fun and enjoy the moment."

But this year's showdown with the Houston Astros also could have wider-ranging repercussions.

The Red Sox responded to last October's disappointment by trading for ace lefty Chris Sale. It was a big, bold move that a team makes when it knows its window to win a World Series is wide open for only another few years.

After getting swept by the Indians, the Red Sox chalked it up mostly to a case of young players finding out what the postseason is all about. Plenty of championship teams went through the experience. To wit: The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series one year after being swept in the Division Series by the Colorado Rockies.

But every year the Red Sox come up short is another year closer to free agency for Sale and difficult decisions about how far to go in talks of contract extensions for Betts, Bogaerts and the rest of that young core. The Washington Nationals have seen their window get narrower after three Division Series disappointments in five years.

If the Red Sox are able to advance to at least the AL Championship Series, they will have answered some of the doubts about their ability to close out an opponent. It might also finally cement some job security for Farrell, who has one year left on his contract and could be either brought back as a lame duck or replaced if the Sox fizzle again.

Farrell has no choice, then, but to believe his young players learned from last year. But when Game 1 begins Thursday in Houston, they will have to prove it.

"I think the fact that we experienced it last year, in retrospect, it serves as a stepping stone hopefully that a lot of the firsts are out of the way, including disappointment," Farrell said. "Knowing that disappointment, what it felt like, the bitter taste it leaves, we felt like that was added incentive as we approached spring training. So, we become what our experiences give us. We're eager and really looking forward to starting this one off."

If there was a snapshot of that 2016 playoff experience, it might be Betts' first career postseason at-bat.

The Red Sox actually had Indians starter Trevor Bauer on the ropes in the first inning of Game 1, with Dustin Pedroia lining a leadoff double and Brock Holt following with a single. Up stepped Betts, runner-up in the AL MVP race, with a chance to silence the crowd at Progressive Field.

"It was a pretty big plate appearance. I think I struck out," Betts recalled, correctly. "I don't know if it was bases loaded or second and third or what it was. But I just remember I put too much pressure. Just have to relax and be who I am."

Like last year, the Sox will be starting the Division Series on the road. And they insist they won't be quite so unnerved Thursday night when they step onto the field at Minute Maid Park.

"The fact that they've gone through the firsts of the media attention to maybe a heightened environment when you get on the road, those are all going to be [things] that we can draw upon," Farrell said. "We fully expect it to be a loud, noisy and unfriendly environment when we get down to Houston. That's all part of those firsts.

"But how we do the simple things, and in that environment particularly, how we communicate, how we execute our fundamentals, this is a matter of just making sure that we do the things that we've been trained to do as consistently as possible. Not asking them to do anything more, but just make sure that the basics and the simple things inside this game are executed to the highest abilities."

Sale can go a long way to helping the Red Sox calm down. If the ace lefty is able to mute the Astros' high-powered offense, it also will quiet the crowd. Last year, Rick Porcello gave up one run in the second inning and three in the third, putting the Red Sox at an early disadvantage.

The Red Sox also can take comfort in having just seen the Astros in a four-game series at Fenway Park to end the regular season. Houston pounded them for 12 runs last Thursday night, but after a one-run loss Friday night, the Sox rebounded to win 6-3 Saturday and clinch the AL East title.

"We've just got to go out there and try to win," Bogaerts said. "Last year, we didn't win. [The Indians] were the American League champs for a reason. They played good. They were rolling. We couldn't seem to catch a break. This is a new year, a different team, a different lineup we’re throwing out there. Anything can happen -- this is baseball."

Said Betts: "Anytime you can get an opportunity to play in the postseason, you have to take advantage of it. Some people play years and years and they never make it."

And some teams make the playoffs year after year and go nowhere.

It's time to find out if the Red Sox are one of those teams.