TORONTO - Maybe if the Yankees weren't involved, it would be different. Maybe, despite another mind-numbing Red Sox defeat, this one featuring a grand slam surrendered by Jonathan Papelbon in a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays last night, Sox fans might be more inclined to squirm through a history lesson, one that has nothing to do with the numbers 1, 9, 7, and 8.
This lesson hasn't even had time to collect dust. A year ago, the Detroit Tigers took the lead in their division May 21, led by as many as 10 games Aug. 7, then blew it. They lost their last five games of the season, all at home - the last three to the Royals, 100-game losers - and had to settle for the wild card. They were lousy the last month of the season, going 12-16.
Then they shocked the Yankees in the first round of the postseason, rolled over the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series, and played in the World Series. No one even notices there isn't a divisional flag flying in
Then there were the Cardinals, who had a seven-game lead in the National League Central a year ago today, then lost seven in a row and eight of nine, their lead shrinking to a half-game, before they righted themselves. The Cardinals won the World Series.
So, would anyone in New England like to take a deep breath, especially with the Sox' magic number to qualify for the playoffs just three after the Tigers were swept by Cleveland?
Not likely, not when the Sox can feel Alex Rodriguez's breath on the backs of their necks, with the Yankees, who trailed by 14 1/2 games May 29, now just 1 1/2 games behind in the AL East with nine games to play, 10 for New York.
"Win," said Mike Timlin, who loaded the bases in advance of the slam allowed by Papelbon on a hit batsman, walk, and intentional walk after a sacrifice bunt. "That's the bottom line. Doesn't matter how, doesn't matter who, we just need to win and prove what kind of team we are."
Not likely, not with the magic number to win the division stuck at nine after each of the last four nights, the Sox losing four while the Yankees were winning.
Not likely, not when the best record in the league is now shared by the Indians and Angels, with the Sox a half-game behind and in danger of losing home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Not likely, not when Papelbon is summoned, for only the third time all season, into a close game in which the Sox were trailing - it was 2-1 - strikes out the first batter he faces, Adam Lind, then gives up a slam to Russ Adams, the same Russ Adams who had made Eric Gagné so miserable with a game-deciding double the night before.
It was a first for both - first slam hit by Adams, first slam allowed by Papelbon, who fell behind, 3 and 0, but had gotten it back to a full count before the third baseman hit one into the second deck.
"I wasn't able to get the heater in on him," said Papelbon, who had been left in the bullpen the night before when Gagné blew a 2-1 lead in the eighth. "He's sitting on a heater; I threw it. I can't walk the guy, you know. It was one of those situations where somebody's got to give in, and unfortunately, it was me."
Not likely, not after a series in which the Sox, still missing three regulars, scored a total of five runs in three games, their only run last night coming on a home run off Jesse Litsch, who was pitching against No-Hit Buchholz and held the Sox hitless until J.D. Drew lined his ninth home run of the season leading off the fifth. The Sox had a chance to tie the score when they loaded the bases in the seventh, but Julio Lugo was tardy getting out of the box after being jammed by reliever Casey Janssen and didn't accelerate until after shortstop Ray Olmedo bobbled his barehand swipe at the ball. Too late. He was tossed out.
"Didn't really see it," Lugo said of the play. "I got jammed, and then tried to run."
The Sox had another chance to draw even in the eighth when Jacoby Ellsbury beat out an infield squibber, Ellsbury credited with a single when Toronto manager John Gibbons argued in vain that Ellsbury wasn't in the runner's box when Janssen threw to first, impeding the play. Replays showed Gibbons had a point, but the Sox did not take advantage of the break. Ellsbury remained anchored at first while Dustin Pedroia lined out to right. Then Ellsbury stole second with David Ortiz up, but Ortiz lined to right against lefthander Scott Downs and Mike Lowell struck out on three pitches against Jeremy Accardo.
With his right knee acting up again, Ortiz had just one hit in the series, and was due to get a couple of days off - the scheduled offday today, and tomorrow night, when the Sox are due to face tough Tampa lefthander Scott Kazmir. "We'll see," Ortiz said. "If I feel good, I'll be playing."
And what about his slugging partner, Manny Ramírez, who missed his 21st game last night with a strained oblique muscle? "No idea," Ortiz said when asked when Ramírez might be back.
Rookie Clay Buchholz, making his first start since throwing a no-hitter against the Orioles Sept. 1, didn't give up a hit last night until Frank Thomas lined a single to left in the fourth inning. But a couple of misplays in the fifth left him more red-faced than he was on the recent hazing night, when he was forced to dress like a pirate's wench, if you're keeping score at home.
Buchholz was a tick late covering the bag on an infield roller by Adams while a run scored in the fifth. When the next batter, Ray Olmedo, bunted toward third, Buchholz gloved the ball and attempted to make a shovel toss to Lowell at third. The ball wound up in left field as another run scored.
"Just a mental lapse, I guess," said Buchholz, who was lifted with two outs in the fifth, Terry Francona unwilling to let him throw any more than 68 pitches (46 strikes).
"We had a handle on that game," said Timlin, who hit Alex Rios in the back with a pitch to open the eighth, walked Thomas after Rios stole second, and gave an intentional walk to Gregg Zaun after Aaron Hill bunted the runners over.
"We had a chance to win until I came in and gave up the boat. In a way, I'm saddling me with this one. We had a shot and I blew it. Didn't throw the ball well at all. Walking people, not good."
Deep breath? How about hold your breath?
"Obviously, you'd like some momentum going into the playoffs," Papelbon said. "But the whole key is getting into the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, I want to win the division, probably more than anybody. That's part of the goal, to win the division. Right now, we've got to put our sights on winning the division.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do the job and keep my ball club in the game."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.