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Where are they now?

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 8, 2009

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CHICAGO - There are more than 20 teams in baseball who would love to be in the Red Sox’ position right now, but the expectations for the team are far greater than just holding on for a wild-card spot.

After losing three of four games in Chicago after winning two of three in Tampa Bay, the Sox have a favorable home schedule, and if they plan to go for the kill, now would be the time.

They certainly have not put their wild-card opponents in the rearview mirror; a better showing here would have done that.

Indeed, the Sox still have problems to sort out at this late date.

Tim Wakefield, who has performed well when he’s been able to pitch through back and leg woes, is not going to be a regular part of the rotation after manager Terry Francona announced that the knuckleballer will be reassessed. The hope is to pitch him every 10 days or so.

Josh Beckett yesterday began turning around after a recent funk, but he took the 5-1 loss against the White Sox and he’s still not quite the ace he needs to be for the Sox to succeed in October.

Then there’s David Ortiz, hitting .222 and back in a funk again (2 for 22 on the trip). It’s to the point that he sat on the bench yesterday despite a .354 career average and 1.008 OPS against Mark Buehrle, with Mike Lowell penciled in as the designated hitter.

The Sox have been able to fix some holes while the leaks have sprung up in other places. With the acquisition of Alex Gonzalez, the shortstop defense has improved tremendously, and Gonzalez even has an 11-game hitting streak. Victor Martinez has added thump to the lineup and been suitable at catcher while incumbent Jason Varitek continues to struggle at the plate.

With Wakefield’s status uncertain, the Sox need continued maturity from Clay Buchholz in the third-starter spot and they must hope that Paul Byrd’s last outing (2 1/3 innings, 7 runs vs. Chicago) was an aberration and that his next one will be more like the six shutout innings of his first go-around.

Lefthander Billy Wagner has added some quality to the bullpen, but Hideki Okajima allowed a two-run homer to Carlos Quentin in the eighth inning yesterday and has not been stellar lately.

But if the Sox could somehow get some breathing room, they could rest a little from all the trials and tribulations of the season before the playoffs begin.

“I think any team would love to be able to do that,’’ said closer Jonathan Papelbon, “but if we don’t I don’t think it’s a big deal. The big thing is to make the playoffs and that’s our goal right now. I don’t think it matters if it’s by one game or eight games.

“It hasn’t been easy for us and I don’t think it will be. We’d like it to be, but we have to fight and claw. We’ve gone through a lot. I think in some ways playing competitive games right until the end is good for a team going into the playoffs.

“It’s a two-edged sword; on the one hand we’d love to have some breathing room and rest and on the other, it’s good to keep our intensity up right up until we start the playoffs, which is an entirely new year.

“I just think if we get in we’re going to be a very good playoff team.’’

Jason Bay believes the Sox will be able to win the wild-card race. They have 25 games left, 15 at home. The final four games of the season are vs. the hapless Indians at Fenway. The Sox are 45-21 at home, and hit some 25 points higher at Fenway (.279) than on the road (.254).

The Sox yesterday fell to 34-37 on the road; the goal of course is always to finish at .500 in away games and then do damage at home.

Despite losing three out of four in Chicago, there didn’t seem to be a feeling that the Sox can’t recover.

“It was a 3-4 road trip. It wasn’t like it was an abomination of a road trip, as [Dustin] Pedroia would say,’’ said Bay. “We go home and get a chance to add to the lead that we have in the wild-card chase. I don’t think anyone’s looking much farther ahead than that. Still a good position to be in.’’

Kevin Youkilis pointed out that the Sox began the trip with a three-game lead over Texas and returned to Boston with a 2 1/2-game lead.

“Other than a two-week stretch when we had everybody healthy and the stars were lined up and all that, right now we’re still looking to improve a few spots,’’ Bay said.

“But once again, in the position we’re in, it makes it a lot easier. We’re not looking up at three teams and having to do monumental things.

“We just have to go out and play well at home like we have and start to distance ourselves. We could be better in a lot of aspects. When you look at our record and look at our place in the standings and if you said in April if we went through all the things we’ve gone through, that we’d be in the position we’re in, I don’t think there’s anyone here who wouldn’t take it.’’

The Sox have to rattle off some home wins and then make a statement on the next road trip, to Baltimore, Kansas City, and New York.

They need to show their rotation can pitch consistently, with Beckett getting back up to the level Jon Lester is pitching at. They are hoping, too, to receive a shot in the arm from Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has contributed little this season but who could really help out by chipping in.

In hockey it’s all about skating your wing. In baseball it’s about doing your job. Beckett, Ortiz, and Matsuzaka especially need to do theirs heading down the stretch.

The Red Sox have won a championship from the wild-card position before, so that’s not the worry. It’s all about earning a postseason spot with a team on the rise at the right time.

This weekend in Chicago, at least, they weren’t quite ready to start that climb.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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