THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Hitless wondering at Fenway

Many Red Sox batters came away from the plate frustrated, including Dustin Pedroia after this sixth-inning strikeout. Many Red Sox batters came away from the plate frustrated, including Dustin Pedroia after this sixth-inning strikeout. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / August 18, 2011

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Four losses in five games. Nine hits and three runs in 27 innings over two days at home against the Rays. David Ortiz is wearing a ski boot on his right foot and Carl Crawford is harder to find than Albert Haynesworth.

These three games marked the first time since 1974 that the Red Sox failed to get more than three hits in three consecutive games. They have gone five games without a double.

Is this a slump? Is it time to panic here in the hardball hub of the universe? Does anybody really care about finishing in first place anymore?

“We didn’t swing the bats real well this whole series,’’ said manager Terry Francona after yesterday’s 4-0 matinee loss to David Price. “Fortunately, Ells hit that home run’’ - Jacoby Ellsbury’s three-run homer won Tuesday’s first game - “or it would have been a worse series.’’

While you were sleeping Tuesday night, the Yankees crept into the top spot in the American League East.

This may or may not wind up being a big deal. We know the Sox aren’t going to go pedal-to-the-metal to finish first. It hasn’t been a priority since the inception of the wild card.

The Sox didn’t finish first when they won the World Series in 2004. And though they have qualified for the postseason in six of the last eight seasons, they have finished first only once in that stretch.

Shocking as it sounds, the almighty Carmine Hose have finished in sole possession of first place only once (2007) since 1995. You could say that the wild card was John Harrington’s lasting gift to this baseball town.

The consequences of first vs. wild card in the East are fairly well established. The team that finishes first is going to get Detroit, Cleveland, or Chicago and play three of the possible five at home. The wild card team is going to Texas and will play three of the possible five in Arlington.

Nobody likes the idea of a Game 5 on the road, and Texas scares the stuffing out of a lot of baseball folks (the Sox are 6-16 vs. Texas over the last three seasons), but facing Detroit’s Justin Verlander twice in a five-game series is not much of a reward for finishing atop the AL East.

This silent mini-homestand (three games in 28 hours) will serve as a great negotiating tool for Big Papi. Ortiz has bursitis in his right heel and will be wearing the boot probably for another week. Without Ortiz, the Sox did next to nothing against James Shields, Jeff Niemann, and Price.

“We’ve been hitting so well - to not hit the way we’ve been hitting all year is frustrating,’’ said Ortiz, adding that he might play in Texas next week. “I’m not gonna tell you we’re not hitting because I’m not in the lineup, but I’m part of this group.’’

Francona’s lineup against Price featured Jed Lowrie batting fifth, Darnell McDonald (.167) sixth, and Crawford seventh.

A word about Crawford: Can we think of another Boston athlete who has enjoyed a longer free pass than the $142 million outfielder? Hidden beneath the sensational seasons of Messrs. Ellsbury and Gonzalez, Crawford is staggering along with a .249 batting average and a hideous on-base percentage of .285. He has 15 steals and 38 RBIs. He has walked 16 times with 74 strikeouts.

If anyone were paying attention, we’d be longing for the good old days of Edgar Renteria. Not once have we seen the impact outfielder who routinely terrorized the Red Sox. Yet nobody complains.

“They have good pitching over there,’’ said Crawford, a career Ray before this season. “That’s what keeps them going. You’ve got to tip your hat. They have good pitching. That’s all I can pretty much say.’’

Boston is supposed to be a tough town for professional athletes. Not for Crawford. He is one lucky hombre.

On the other hand, we have John Lackey, who has been soundly smacked around by media and fans since signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal. Lackey yesterday was tagged with his first loss since July 4 (there’s a misleading stat for you). His ERA is 6.02.

The Lackey-or-Erik Bedard parlor game (who’s your No. 3 playoff starter?) is becoming a New England favorite. Neither pitcher did anything to stake a claim this week.

We’d like to think Lackey is a better bet because he has pitched so many playoff games, but the big fella continues to put runners on base at an alarming clip. It’s all hits and walks when Lackey is on the mound.

Yesterday, he allowed four runs on six hits, three walks, a wild pitch, and two hit batters over 6 2/3 innings. He threw 125 pitches and had one 1-2-3 inning. Lackey pitches out of the stretch more than just about anyone in baseball. Boston’s offense has enabled him to win 11 games. Not yesterday.

“We’re pretty beat up,’’ said the manager. “We went through a three-game stretch where we didn’t do much. But those things change.’’

The Kansas City Royals should get the Sox healthy. The Royals have the second-worst pitching staff (thanks, Orioles) in the American League.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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