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Rays 9, Red Sox 1

Malaise sweeps Sox

Lester unable to salvage win

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / September 12, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Red Sox have been here before, unable to figure out a way to win as the pressure to meet expectations becomes almost suffocating.

It was in April when they opened the season with 10 losses in their first 12 games. They were baseball’s punch line, a team of high-salaried stars falling flat.

But the Sox had months to get it right and they did, climbing to the top of their division.

Now it’s happening again, a string of inexplicable losses at just the wrong point of the season. Only this time, the days are running out. If the Sox don’t solve this soon, they’ll have all winter to think about it.

“Hell, yeah, you’ve got to panic,’’ David Ortiz said after the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Sox, 9-1, yesterday.

Find something and hold on tight, these last 16 games could be a wild ride. The Sox have lost five straight, seven of eight, and nine of their last 11 games. They now lead the Rays by three games in the loss column in the American League wild-card race and trail the Yankees by 3 1/2 in the division.

The Sox are off today, host Toronto for two games, then play four games against the Rays starting on Thursday.

“Hopefully they can feel us coming,’’ said Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon, who needs only to look at his 2004 Red Sox World Series ring to be reminded of unlikely comebacks.

The Sox were counting on Jon Lester to save them from a series sweep and quell talk of a collapse. He failed miserably, giving up three runs in the first inning and sending the Rays to their fourth straight win.

The Sox were outscored, 22-8, by the Rays in the series and managed only 22 hits over 29 innings. Their starting pitchers - John Lackey, Kyle Weiland, and Lester - allowed 12 earned runs over 11 innings.

“We’re kind of in a fight right now and we know that. It’s not real pretty,’’ manager Terry Francona said.

According to Tampa Bay starter James Shields, the Rays didn’t think the Sox took them seriously.

“I think they know now,’’ he said. “Before this series I don’t think they were worried too much.’’

Rays manager Joe Maddon built up this series as a crucial one and his players responded.

“We needed to do just what we did. A lot of confidence should be derived from that,’’ he said. “Maybe a message sent by that.’’

The Sox played with little efficiency or emotion.

They were 1 for 15 with runners in scoring position in the three games, overthrew cutoff men from the outfield, and threw balls away in the infield. Their pitchers walked 16 and hit three.

Adrian Gonzalez mentioned the poor level of play Saturday and Ortiz had his own comment yesterday.

“If we keep on playing like that, we’ll be home in the tub,’’ he said, shaking his head as his teammates walked quietly through the clubhouse.

Lester (15-7) had not allowed more than one earned run in each of his previous five starts. That streak was over four batters into the game. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases before Ben Zobrist ripped a two-run single to left.

By the time the inning was over, Lester had thrown 43 pitches. He was done after four innings, having given up four runs while throwing 111 pitches.

It was the second time in three starts that Lester had a 43-pitch first inning, the Yankees having done the same to him. Teams are working him over and getting into the bullpen.

“He wasn’t throwing the ball early where he wanted to, actually he didn’t throw it where he wanted to all day,’’ Francona said.

A taciturn Lester offered no excuses.

“I didn’t have anything today. It was just one of those days,’’ he said. “Had no command of one pitch, didn’t have a pitch that would get me back in the count. One of those deals, picked the wrong time to have one of these.’’

The game got out of hand in the fifth inning when, with the bases loaded and two outs, Francona called in Matt Albers.

Albers had allowed 27 hits in his previous 16 1/3 innings. That trend continued as he fell behind B.J. Upton and left a fastball over the plate that was mashed deep over the fence in center for his first career grand slam.

Shields (15-10) allowed a home run by Marco Scutaro in the third inning. He otherwise scattered six singles over 8 1/3 innings with three walks and five strikeouts. The Sox are hitting .177 against the Rays in 13 games this season and averaging 3.1 runs.

“There’s nobody to blame but everybody,’’ Ortiz said, channeling his inner Yogi Berra.

History and mathematical projections suggest the Sox will hold on and this will be forgotten once they clinch a postseason berth.

“We’ve just got to play better,’’ said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who was 3 for 31 on the 1-6 road trip and committed two errors.

“I’m not really concerned. If we play good, we’ll win. We’re a pretty damned good team. We’ve just hit a tough patch.’’

Pedroia was asked how he could be so confident given the events of the last week.

“Because if we don’t, we’re going to home,’’ he said. “That’s basically it. If we don’t play well, we go home.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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