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Can they handle chance?

Sox must show even more now

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 9, 2010

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NEW YORK — The attaboys had been coming fast and furious to the battered and bruised Red Sox. Good job Terry Francona for keeping the Sox together. Kudos to Jacoby Ellsbury for coming back to play. Nice going, guys, for surviving this terrible stretch of injuries.

But now that so many have given the local nine pats on the back, we are going to see whether this Red Sox team is really special or whether it’s one that is just going to give it the old college try. It sure looked like the latter last night, as the Sox fell to the Yankees, 7-2.

Big-money teams such as the Red Sox have huge payrolls for a reason — they want to be able to sustain injuries. Sure, the Red Sox have had an extraordinary number of injuries, but their depth, bolstered by the farm system, has kept them afloat so far. Yet now is when we find out just how far that goes.

The Sox took the field last night knowing the Rays had lost their fifth straight game. The Rays also had announced that two of their young starting pitchers — Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis — left the team to see a doctor because of shoulder problems. The Rays have had a lights-out staff all season, but last week they lost their best seventh-inning guy, Grant Balfour, after he hurt a side muscle horsing around with pitching coach Jim Hickey. Sure, the Rays can bring up Jeremy Hellickson, and they might not miss a beat if Niemann or Davis or both have shoulder issues, but this could be a huge opportunity for the Red Sox.

The Rays have already been no-hit twice and almost had it happen again yesterday in a 1-0 setback to the Blue Jays in which Brandon Morrow struck out 17 and held them to one hit. If ever the Rays were vulnerable, it is now, so that’s just more reason for the Sox to turn up the heat. Instead they were defeated for the second time in three games by the Yankees, with Dustin Moseley replacing A.J. Burnett (back spasms) and looking like David Cone.

As much as the Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia injuries have hurt the Sox, Pedroia is coming back soon. Boston also has a healthy starting rotation, which is more than the Yankees and Rays can say. Pitching injuries should be harder to overcome than positional player injuries.

While the Red Sox have good starting pitching on paper, it doesn’t mean anything if John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Josh (Four More Years) Beckett don’t step it up immediately. Games in this part of the season are why the Sox spent all that money on Lackey, and so far he’s been a huge letdown. And if Lester is indeed the team’s ace, being 0-4 after the All-Star break is unacceptable.

Lester has to be what CC Sabathia was to the Yankees Saturday — a stop ’em dead in their tracks starter.

Beckett was also disappointing last night. After missing two months with back spasms, Beckett took a step back in the biggest game he’s pitched in in a long time.

The Red Sox signed Carlos Delgado to a minor league contract Saturday, but it appears the team needs a lefthanded-hitting first baseman who can help right now, not two weeks from now, which is the hope for Delgado, who hasn’t played in more than a year and has hip problems similar to those of Mike Lowell.

If this team is truly special it will make the playoffs, whether that means the Yankees or the Rays fall or the Sox simply go out and take it with dominant performances on the mound.

It doesn’t matter how they do it. A playoff berth would ensure this team a special place in Red Sox history because the players would have overcome so many injuries and would have truly performed a miracle.

Bill Hall, who had three hits but committed a big throwing error last night, thinks the Sox need “a week to 10 days of a hot streak and we’ll be just fine. We have to go out [today] and split this series and get out of here and move on to the next stop and try to win that series.’’

The 2004 team always will be special on so many levels, but most importantly because it was down, three games to none, to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, overcame that deficit, and won the World Series. All of those players should be extremely proud of what they accomplished.

Having to leapfrog the Yankees or Rays and hold off a wild-card contender such as the White Sox or the Twins would be a special feat for these Red Sox, given the circumstances.

With the exception of Youkilis, the Sox’ injuries were not of the season-ending variety. First-half injuries can be overcome, and we’re about to find out if the Sox can do it. They needed to win three out of four games in this series but didn’t, and they need to win every series the rest of the way, and perhaps sweep several. They also need to be their best against the Yankees and Rays. Splitting series with them just doesn’t cut it.

While they’re trying to make all of this happen, it might behoove general manager Theo Epstein to make a waiver deal for a reliever. The bullpen is an area that must be bolstered, even if youngster Felix Doubront does well in his first foray into relieving. His outing Saturday against the Yankees was impressive, but we’ll see how he reacts in a more pressurized situation.

The pats on the back for the Sox were well-deserved.

Now they need to show us if they’re special.

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

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