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Backup plan falling apart

Emergency fill-in Niuman Romero grounded to second base to end the game. Emergency fill-in Niuman Romero grounded to second base to end the game. (Chris O’Meara/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Bill Lajoie, the veteran scout and former general manager of the Detroit Tigers, used to theorize that the player who replaces an injured starter has about a three-week shelf life before he turns into what he is — a backup.

That theory hasn’t quite come to fruition yet with the Red Sox. Eric Patterson, who legged out a triple in the ninth inning to drive in a run and Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald still have their moments, although not enough in last night’s 3-2 loss to the Rays. Against good teams such as Tampa Bay in one-run games, the injuries played a role in the Sox not being able to eke out that extra run or two.

Until the past two games, the injuries had served as a badge of honor for a team overcoming the odds and staying above water. It created a bond. But now even the depth the Sox had is beginning to erode, and while Patterson has come up big the past two nights, Nava and McDonald, the previous stars of this fairy tale, have begun morphing back to pumpkins. Both seem to be fighting it — maybe they can hold off the inevitable.

The Sox lost Kevin Youkilis in the fourth inning when his right ankle cramped up while in the batter’s box. X-rays were negative. Youkilis said he’ll be able to play tonight in the series finale, a big relief for the Sox, who at one time had too many first-base types. But after Youkilis came out, there was no first baseman on the roster unless you count David Ortiz.

“I was out in the field and it just felt like I had a cramp in my ankle,’’ explained Youkilis. “Which is the most strange thing ever, but basically what they said is the ankle is in a capsule. Somehow I irritated it and my whole entire ankle locked up. Finally, about a half hour ago I started to get a little movement. I’ll be good to go tomorrow.’’ Youkilis wondered if the Tropicana Field turf had contributed to the injury.

With Youkilis out for the rest of the night, Terry Francona had to use Nuiman Romero in the cleanup spot. Romero came up in two difficult situations. In the seventh, he grounded to second with runners on first and second and two outs. In the ninth, he grounded out with Patterson at third, after David Ortiz was walked intentionally for the second straight time. Romero just couldn’t provide the magic his fellow fill-ins have to this point.

It’s not his fault. He’s a backup infielder, who had only played one game at first base in his major league career.

The ninth-inning at-bat will create some controversy because Francona let Romero hit when he had Mike Cameron available. But Cameron pinch-ran for Ortiz. Francona explained afterward he had run out of players and felt with Cameron being able to steal second base, and Romero possibly being able to dump a single in the outfield, he had the chance to win the game. Francona said that was better than having Cameron hit and then having to lose the DH and have the pitcher have to hit the next time around.

Francona was adamant that he made the right choice.

There was no guarantee Cameron would have gotten around on reliever Rafael Soriano, against whom he was 0 for 4, and Romero is a left-handed hitter. Whether Francona made the right decision, it was made based on the fact that he had no viable players left.

A sore back may have also resulted in Hideki Okajima leaving a splitter over the plate to Carl Crawford, who tallied the winning run with a homer on a 2-1 pitch.

Francona has been the manager of the year in the league at this point, given the spate of injuries. The Sox’ management strategy has been not to do anything on the trade front because of desperation.

The Sox thought they could hold their own here, and a win tonight, would certainly qualify as holding their own. They don’t want to get swept, which would place a huge burden on the team heading into the final series in Toronto before the All-Star break.

The Sox are trying to head things off before they fall too far behind.

They sent Michael Bowden to the bullpen in Pawtucket because they’d love to solve the thinning middle-relief situation from within rather than expend prospects for a veteran reliever, but they’re exploring those possibilities as well. Major League sources have the Sox linked to Toronto’s Scott Downs or Cleveland’s Kerry Wood. It appears Wood wouldn’t cost as much as lefthander Downs, because all Cleveland would want is for the Sox to take on the remainder of the $10.5 million deal and deal with the option Wood has in 2011. So far, the Sox have resisted that, and a similar deal for Arizona catcher Chris Snyder.

How far back is too far to fall before they begin making deals is going to be a tricky decision.

What they don’t want is a backlog of players when Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Jeremy Hermida, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Josh Beckett all return this month.

The Sox expected they would take their hits and have tough losses like the last two nights against their divisional rival.

They’ve found the last two nights that with an abundance of 4A players, it’s hard to beat a team with major leaguers.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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