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Headed for postseason, Sox have lofty goals

Boston became the first MLB team to clinch a berth, but it's aiming for more
MLB.com @IanMBrowne

BOSTON -- The first goal was accomplished on Tuesday night, as the Red Sox clinched a postseason berth with a 7-2 win over the Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

There was a modest acknowledgement of the moment as manager Alex Cora led the Sox in a ceremonial toast after the game.

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BOSTON -- The first goal was accomplished on Tuesday night, as the Red Sox clinched a postseason berth with a 7-2 win over the Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

There was a modest acknowledgement of the moment as manager Alex Cora led the Sox in a ceremonial toast after the game.

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But the Red Sox have loftier goals in their sights.

The first mission will be to clinch the American League East, which would allow Boston to again avoid the stress of the AL Wild Card Game. The Red Sox are aiming for their third straight division crown. Before last year, they had never won back-to-back division titles.

With 17 games left in the regular season, the Sox have a nine-game lead over the Yankees and a magic number of nine to clinch the division.

"It's definitely something that we wanted to do, and we've given ourselves an opportunity," first baseman Mitch Moreland said. "We took that next step, but we've got a long way to go, and everybody in here knows it. We're definitely happy about that opportunity, but we're excited about other things, too."

Video: TOR@BOS: Hembree seals win and a playoff berth

Assuming the Red Sox win the AL East -- and it would take a colossal collapse for them not to -- they are likely to face the Yankees, A's or Astros in the AL Division Series, which would start on Oct. 5 at Fenway Park.

Because the Red Sox are all but certain to finish with the best record in the AL, they'd face the winner of the AL Wild Card Game in the Division Series. The Yankees and A's currently project as the two Wild Card teams. One way this could change is if Oakland overtakes Houston to win the AL West. The Astros lead the division by three games.

Video: TOR@BOS: Cora discusses Sale's brief outing in win

Clearly, the most compelling Division Series for Red Sox fans would be a rivalry showdown with the Yankees. It would be the first meeting between the clubs in postseason play since they met in the AL Championship Series in a pair of seven-game classics in 2003 and '04.

Boston and New York have played a competitive, entertaining season series so far, with the Red Sox going 8-5, including a four-game sweep at Fenway last month, which all but put the division away. The clubs tangle again next week at Yankee Stadium (Sept. 18-20), and then again for a three-game series at Fenway (Sept. 28-30), which closes out the regular season.

With the emergence of young stars on both sides, in addition to Giancarlo Stanton going to the Yankees and J.D. Martinez signing with the Red Sox, the rivalry is at its most fascinating point in a while. A postseason matchup could take it to another level.

But the overachieving A's are lurking and looking to prevent the rivalry revelry. Cora was complimentary of the A's even before they started to take off. The A's took two of three from the Red Sox in Oakland from April 20-22, and again at Fenway from May 14-16.

The most memorable of those games was when Sean Manaea no-hit the Sox in Oakland. The Red Sox wouldn't have to worry about Manaea in the playoffs as he is out for the year with a shoulder injury that will require surgery.

Oakland has dealt with injuries to the rotation all season and managed to weather all of them. Executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane made some key additions to the bullpen during trade season, and the A's would represent the "underdog" story in October.

As for the Astros, the Red Sox know all about the defending World Series champions, having played them in the Division Series last year and losing in four games. Cora was Boston's bench coach then, and he has kept strong relationships with Astros players Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa and Houston manager AJ Hinch.

The Astros boast the strongest rotation of any team in the postseason race, so the Red Sox would rather wait until the ALCS to face them.

Houston has again played Boston tough this season. The clubs split a four-game series from May 31-June 3, and the Astros took two out of three at Fenway last weekend.

By the time Oct. 5 rolls around, the Red Sox will have their opponent fully scouted. For now, they will take a minute to appreciate their first accomplishment, and then focus on clinching the division and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"It's great. From the start of the year, we talked about October," said ace Chris Sale, who returned from the DL on Tuesday. "We've all been pulling from the same side of the rope, and we've got a lot of good guys in this clubhouse -- medical staff, coaching staff and players -- and this is the first step in the right direction."

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

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