Red Sox fans up against the wall in wild-card race

Posted Sept. 20, 2011, at 5:18 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 20, 2011, at 8:05 p.m.

BOSTON — Things were looking dire for the Boston Red Sox when they dropped three of four to Tampa Bay and the opener of a doubleheader against last-place Baltimore on Monday.

Fans were booing. Fans were panicking. Fans were ready to give up.

But they weren’t willing to take the most drastic measure of all: Rooting for the New York Yankees when they play the Rays seven times over the next nine days.

“Absolutely not. Anybody that’s going to beat the Yankees, I don’t care,” said Pat Smith, a plumber from Cambridge who watched the Red Sox lose to the Orioles on Monday afternoon — their 12th loss in 15 games. “Even if it hurts the Sox. You never root for the Yankees. I’m sorry. I don’t care.”

The Red Sox led the AL East for much of the summer, and they still had a chance to coast into the playoffs with a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the wild-card race on Sept. 3.

But the Rays beat Boston six times in seven games over a 10-day span, trimming the deficit to two games before Baltimore cut it by another half-game Monday. The Red Sox won the nightcap to extend their lead to two games heading into Tuesday.

The Rays play seven games over the final nine days against the first-place Yankees, a reason for Boston fans to cheer for the hated pinstripes.

“It’s something that you don’t ever think you’re going to get to. But I understand that,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday.

Seven of Boston’s last 10 are against the Orioles, who entered the doubleheader 29 games out in the AL East.

“We need to control what we can control,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after losing three of four to the Rays. “Saying that, I hope they lose.”

Before heading to New York for four games in three days, Rays manager Joe Maddon was asked if he ever thought he could turn a ballpark full of 37,000 Bostonians into Yankees fans.

“That’s improbable, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s not just 37,000, it’s 37 in the ballpark and millions more in the nation.”

But many Red Sox fans weren’t ready to take that step.

“You’ve got to root for the Rays,” said Ted Sellars, a grocery manager from the Boston area. “You can’t root for the Yankees. Ever! Ever! Ever!”

The rivalry between Boston and New York ebbs and flows, hitting its most recent peak in back-to-back AL championship series matchups in 2003-04. The Red Sox lost the first one with a spectacular collapse, but then won the next year with an even more impressive comeback en route to their first World Series title in 86 years.

That cured much of the angst that has infested the town since Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees; the New Yorkers won 26 World Series before Boston won another, but with a 2-1 edge in titles in the last 10 years, the Hub seemed finally to have gotten over its inferiority complex.

That’s why Billy Welsh, a firefighter from Trenton, N.J., who nonetheless grew up a Red Sox fan because his father liked Ted Williams, is willing to look at things from a pragmatic perspective.

“As hard as it may seem, I would have to root for the Yankees because I don’t think the Red Sox are going to win the division, and the only way they’re going to get into the playoffs is if Tampa Bay goes down,” Welsh said. “Because the way they’re playing right now, it’s not looking good.”

Try telling that to Jim Hopkins, an accountant from nearby Danvers.

Rooting for the Yankees is “like telling Satan ‘You’re good,”’ he said. “If the Sox can’t get there on their own, that’s their problem.”

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