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A dear price is being paid for this stretch

An opposing batter took out John Lackey in a different way than usual this year. An opposing batter took out John Lackey in a different way than usual this year. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 10, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Red Sox aren’t the first team to go through a little swoon at this time of the year.

The White Sox had one in 2005 before they swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series.

The Mets lost a six-game lead at this time four years ago when the Phillies mounted a late run and took first place in the National League East on the final day of the season.

Obviously, the Sox’ hope is that their recent swoon won’t lead to anything that dramatic, but injuries are mounting and the players who need to pick up the slack - John Lackey, for instance - aren’t doing the job.

Lackey left last night’s 7-2 loss to the Rays with a left calf contusion after John Jaso lined a ball off his leg. Lackey recovered to get the out at first, leaving the bases loaded and ending the third inning. The Twitter world was almost gleeful that Lackey got hurt, which is never an acceptable reaction because nobody should root for someone to get hurt.

But that’s the type of reaction Lackey is receiving as his terrible season keeps getting worse at a time the Sox need to stop the bleeding. They just lost three of four in Toronto, and now the Rays, just 5 1/2 games behind Boston in the wild-card race, have two more cracks at the Sox in this series.

If this should all fall apart for the Sox, the signings of Lackey, Carl Crawford, and Bobby Jenks will stick out like sore thumbs. Lackey is earning about $17 million this season and has three more years on his deal. His record is 12-12, and his ERA of 6.30 is the highest in the majors among qualifying pitchers.

Lackey set the tone by allowing a three-run homer to the weak-hitting Jaso in the second inning on a 3-and-1 pitch that was just awful.

It didn’t get much better for Lackey in the third, and soon the Rays had this game in hand, especially with how Wade Davis was shutting down a Sox lineup that was missing the injured Kevin Youkilis.

Lackey didn’t come out for the fourth, his calf having swelled up. Though he was limping, he didn’t seem to think he’d miss his next start.

“I obviously wasn’t pitching very well,’’ Lackey said. “First inning was good, threw all fastballs. Made one bad pitch on the home run and things went south. In the third inning, I started to mix in some other stuff and it didn’t work out.’’

No, it didn’t.

Scouts who watched Lackey last night said he didn’t have much arm strength, that he was possibly tipping his changeup. The guy who had recovered from a bad start to go 4-1 in July is suddenly lost again.

Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia spoke about how Lackey is a horse who has been grinding out games. Maybe that’s true, but the Sox have to have an explosive offense every time he pitches.

Lackey retired the first two batters in the third before Evan Longoria singled. Lackey lost Ben Zobrist to a walk and then Johnny Damon sent a grounder to first base. Adrian Gonzalez fielded it and tried to lead Lackey with a throw to the bag. Damon won the footrace, and Lackey acknowledged that he should have been there sooner. After he took Gonzalez’s feed, he turned and threw to the plate, but Longoria was safe. Matt Joyce then singled in the Rays’ fifth run.

Two batters later, Jaso sent a liner off Lackey’s leg.

Lackey is frustrated by his enormous ERA. He becomes defensive when his performances are questioned. When asked why he’s struggled following a run of stability, he muttered, “I don’t know what to say. I guess I only had four good starts in the last two months.

“The last two [starts] haven’t been good. Few before that . . . whatever. I don’t have an explanation for you. It’s not fun. There’s some frustration. Kind of [like] hitting your head against the wall; keep working at it. It just isn’t working out.’’

Lackey has been through pennant races and playoffs. His experience in those situations is one of the reasons the Sox leaped at obtaining him.

“You like to be playing well at the right time,’’ he said. “We have time to get hot before the playoffs. Keep grinding and keep at it.’’

The Sox really have no choice other than to keep sending Lackey to the mound. There’s optimism about Josh Beckett possibly missing just one start. Erik Bedard may miss a couple of weeks with a mild lat strain after missing a start with a sore left knee. Clay Buchholz is rapidly working his way back, but the chances of him returning as a starter seem slim.

There’s always the possibility that Alfredo Aceves could return to the rotation. Along with Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon, he’s been one of their most consistent pitchers this season.

But really, the burden of picking up this team should fall on a veteran pitcher who accepted a huge contract. We know the pressure on Lackey must be enormous and his personal issues have surely made this a year he would love to forget.

So much more was expected of him and he expected more from himself.

But this is not the time for finding one’s self. It’s the time for action. It’s almost mid-September and the Sox have no idea whether Lackey can be depended on.

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

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