Red Sox still have edge for wild card despite flop

Baseball fans stand to leave Fenway Park as Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Alfredo Aceves, left, and designated hitter David Ortiz react as they linger in the dugout after they were defeated 6-4 by the Baltimore Orioles in a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday night, Sept. 21, 2011.
Elise Amendola/AP
Baseball fans stand to leave Fenway Park as Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Alfredo Aceves, left, and designated hitter David Ortiz react as they linger in the dugout after they were defeated 6-4 by the Baltimore Orioles in a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday night, Sept. 21, 2011.
Posted Sept. 22, 2011, at 7:13 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 22, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.

BOSTON — The pitching is in shambles. The hitting is spotty. And the defense?

The Boston Red Sox are dropping the ball there, too.

In less than three weeks, they’ve blundered their way from a smooth ride to the playoffs to a bumpy trip toward a spot on the list of historic collapses. And, somehow during their wacky September, they still have the inside track on a postseason berth.

But, boy, what a way to go.

“I’ve been here, what, nine years? We’ve never collapsed that bad,” said David Ortiz, his room-brightening smile replaced by a blank stare. “We’ve been through some tough times, (but) it’s bad. No matter what we do, things are going to be bad.”

The freefall began on Sept. 4 when the Red Sox began play with a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL wild-card race — more like a runaway at the time — and just a half-game deficit in the AL East standings behind the New York Yankees.

Since then, they are 4-14. Going into Thursday’s games, they led the Rays and Los Angeles Angels by just 2 1/2 games for the wild-card spot and were 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees, who clinched the division title on Wednesday night.

It would have been worse if the Rays hadn’t lost a doubleheader to the Yankees while the Red Sox were falling to Baltimore 6-4. They got a break from the misery on a Thursday with a day off while the Rays and Angels played. That will leave each of the contenders with six games remaining.

But the Red Sox must go into Yankee Stadium for the start of a three-game series on Friday night before finishing with three in Baltimore.

“Nobody’s going to lay down for us. Nobody’s going to hand us any wins,” captain and catcher Jason Varitek said. “We’ve got to go out there and get it on our own.”

A few wins over the Yankees should quiet comparisons to the New York Mets’ collapse of 2007 when they missed the playoffs, squandering a seven-game lead by going 5-12 in their last 17 games.

“Anything left that we can try,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia asked. “We can play better. That’s basically it.”

Before the latest loss, pitcher Tim Wakefield snuck a peak over his shoulder at the clubhouse television as he walked toward the field, glove in hand. It was the ninth inning of the Yankees’ 4-2 win over the Rays in the opener of the doubleheader.

The TV was off after Boston coughed up a late lead for the second straight day, walking back to the clubhouse to loud boos from home fans one day after the team passed the 3 million mark in attendance. At the time, the Yankees were minutes away from another 4-2 win.

“We have to take care of ourselves and then from there we’ll worry about what happens,” Varitek said, “but we control what we do by playing good baseball.”

The Red Sox reject observations that they lack an inner fire.

“Completely asinine,” closer Jonathan Papelbon said.

But they went meekly in Wednesday night’s loss. In fact, they failed to get a runner — grounding out harmlessly on their last five at bats — in the last two innings after falling behind 6-4.

They say they’re not pressing.

“I don’t see it,” Ortiz said.

It’s indisputable, though, that the Red Sox are playing bad baseball.

“You have a day off to regroup,” manager Terry Francona said. “We certainly haven’t made it very easy for ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t get where we want to go.

“But, we have our work cut out for us.”

During the current 4-14 slide, they’ve scored just 54 runs in the losses, the same number they’ve put up in the wins. The pitchers have an ERA of 5.81, starters have gone more than five innings in only six of the 18 games, and fielders have made 22 errors to just 10 for their opponents.

One of the costliest flubs came in Tuesday night’s 7-5 loss to the Orioles, a game the Red Sox led 5-4 before Papelbon, who entered with 22 straight scoreless innings, gave up a three-run double to Robert Andino in the eighth.

The error came in the third when right fielder Josh Reddick took a step in on Vladimir Guerrero’s liner then couldn’t get back in time to make the catch, which would have ended the inning with just one run. The ball ticked off Reddick’s glove and the Orioles scored four.

“Fundamentally,” Francona said, “he just didn’t do the right thing.”

He’s certainly not alone.

Four of Boston’s five best pitchers — Josh Beckett, Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Papelbon — couldn’t protect leads in the past two games. The other member of that group, Jon Lester, hopes to reverse a two-game slide on Friday night. In those starts, he allowed eight runs on 13 hits in 11 innings.

Right-hander Clay Buchholz was having an outstanding year but has been out since June 17 with a stress fracture in his lower back. He may be able to pitch in relief before the season ends.

But two of Boston’s highest paid players have struggled all season.

John Lackey, in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, is 12-12 with a 6.19 ERA. Francona is so concerned that he held off announcing whether Lackey will take his regular turn on Sunday against the Yankees. Carl Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million free agent deal before this season, is hitting .259.

But he did get a single, double and triple on Wednesday night and struck a more optimistic tone than some of his teammates.

“I’m still very confident this team will find a way to get to the playoffs,” Crawford said. “I know it looks bad now, but, in some form or another, I think we’ll get it together and find a way.”

If they can’t, Fenway Park fans will have missed their opportunity to purchase items at a gift shop about 50 yards from the Red Sox clubhouse.

“Buy two or more clothing items, save 20 percent,” a sign there said, a deal that might have been the last chance this season to clear out some stock.

In spring training, Beckett said he thought the Red Sox could win 100 games after adding Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Then they lost their first six and 10 of their first 12. But they bounced back and, by May 27, were in first place with a 29-22 record.

Can their fortunes change now — at a much more critical time — the way they did then?

“I hope,” Pedroia said. “Hopefully, it can.”

Until then, a season of such promise is in jeopardy.

“Right now,” Ortiz said, “it’s depressing.”

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