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PAWTUCKET â€“ Manager Kevin Boles doesnâ€™t pretend to be unaware of the fact that his Pawtucket Red Sox are now in the throes of a pennant race, something that in recent years has been an annual staple of August baseball around these parts.
â€śThereâ€™s a buzz and definitely aware whatâ€™s going on. They want to accomplish some special things,â€ť Boles said. â€śWeâ€™re here to develop winning ballplayers.â€ť
Following Wednesdayâ€™s final scheduled off day of the regular season, his PawSox will embark upon an eight-game swing with stops through Charlotte and Gwinnett. The Knights and Braves are two sub-.500 squads who are probably counting down the days to Game No. 144 on Labor Day.
Conversely, Bolesâ€™ ballclub has plenty to play for. Entering Thursday, the local Triple-A outfit sits just two games behind North Division leader Syracuse, and holds a half-game lead on division rival Rochester in the wild-card standings. Another North foe, Buffalo, is two games off Pawtucketâ€™s pace.
We hear all the time that Pawtucketâ€™s main job is to have replacement players ready for Boston, and the PawSox have succeeded in that department too. Their â€śalumniâ€ť have already played an integral role in Bostonâ€™s season and will continue to make their presence felt as the major-league team enjoys its final few months of being labeled â€śdefending world champs.â€ť Including rehabbers, the Red Sox presently feature a whopping 14 players on the 25-man active roster who at some point suited up for the PawSox in 2014.
Given Bostonâ€™s non-contending status, you might think they would take a look at the way Pawtucket is making a charge for the Governorsâ€™ Cup playoffs -- for what would be an unprecedented fourth consecutive season -- and refrain from robbing Boles of all his talent. Alas, the mission for the PawSox remains the same regardless of whether the parent club is playing out the string.
As evidenced during Pawtucketâ€™s recent homestand, supplying the major-league team with reinforcements will remain the mission so long as thereâ€™s still a minor-league season afoot. The PawSox went through a whirling four-day stretch where they totaled 18 player transactions. Such a high volume of movement doesnâ€™t include Tuesdayâ€™s roster subtractions of home run leader Corey Brown and recently-acquired reliever Heath Hembree, or the re-additions of pitchers Steven Wright, Alex Wilson and Brayan Villarreal.
Pawtucketâ€™s current roster arrangement features eight players on Bostonâ€™s 40-man roster. One player with that distinction, Anthony Ranaudo, gets the ball in Thursdayâ€™s road trip opener in Charlotte. That start comes on the heels of last Fridayâ€™s successful Red Sox debut against the New York Yankees.
Itâ€™s PawSox members like Ranaudo who serve as a firm reminder of the fluid and unexpected nature of day-to-day life down on the farm. Based his own success and the struggles of Allen Webster, the odds are overwhelmingly in Ranaudoâ€™s favor that the 12-game winner will receive another crack with Boston.
Again, the Red Sox arenâ€™t in the business of making sure the Triple-A operation is locked and loaded for another playoff run. Boles is no question cognizant of how the baseball pyramid is configured, though the skipper did cite another reason why this final month of the minor-league season looms large for his charges.
â€śFirst and foremost, we need to make sure these guys are ready. Theyâ€™re hungry whether itâ€™s trying to make a push for the playoffs or getting to the major leagues. Thereâ€™s always something at stake and these guys are focused on that,â€ť Boles said. â€śItâ€™s about completing the job and making sure itâ€™s done right. That takes discipline on a daily basis, but our guys have put themselves in a good position. Weâ€™ve just got to continue to progress.â€ť
Regardless of Ranuado, Pawtucketâ€™s rotation should be in good hands with hotshot newcomer Henry Owens, along with Matt Barnes, Edwin Escobar and Wright. Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett said last week that the Red Sox arenâ€™t planning to cap Owens at a certain number of innings, though itâ€™s unrealistic to expect that he will be pushed for the sake of making sure the PawSox qualify for the second season.
Thereâ€™s no denying that the bullpen suffered critical losses in seeing All-Star closer Tommy Layne and Escobar get summoned. The closing situation appears up for grabs â€“ Wilson and Drake Britton have Triple-A earned run averages north of four â€“ and could remain that way in the weeks ahead as the PawSox rely heavily on starting pitching.
The return of outfielder Bryce Brentz and addition of exciting catching prospect Blake Swihart should bolster an offense that is tied for the second-worst batting average in the International League (.253). For a point of reference, it stood at .237 on Memorial Day.
Still, thereâ€™s no denying why PawSox officials have put the word out with their announcement that playoff tickets for all possible games at McCoy Stadium are available for purchase. In the past three years, Pawtucket has either led the division or trailed by no more than two games. In two of those seasons, the locals went on to capture the divisional flag twice.
Time will tell if history repeats itself, but one thing is certain: neither Boles nor his players are looking to brush aside discussion of the teamâ€™s playoff hopes.
â€śItâ€™s something weâ€™re striving for,â€ť said Boles. â€śNo matter how many changes are made in the clubhouse, youâ€™ve got to stay focused. Weâ€™ve got some moving pieces, but the guys are going to remain consistent.â€ť
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