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Strength in some Red Sox numbers

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / September 13, 2011

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The mathematic magicians say the odds are still very much with the Red Sox reaching the postseason despite losing nine of their last 11 games. Teams that have played to a certain level for 90 percent of the season traditionally do not stray far from that level for very long.

The schedule also works in their favor. Of their remaining 16 games, 10 are at home. The Sox also have seven games remaining with the Orioles, the worst team in the American League.

But the numbers indicted only champagne for the 2007 Mets, who held a seven-game lead on the Phillies with 17 games to play. They lost 12 of those games and finished a game out.

The 1978 Red Sox famously blew a 14-game lead, then lost a one-game playoff against the Yankees in the days before wild-card berths. Teams like the 1964 Phillies and 1969 Cubs also live in infamy for their September folds.

Teams that lost leads go down in history. But most good teams that stumble regain their footing and advance, their collapses quickly forgotten.

That is the mission for the Red Sox, who return to Fenway Park tonight having lost five straight. Their lead in the American League wild-card race, once robust, is down to 3 games over the Rays, who defeated the Orioles, 5-2, last night.

General manager Theo Epstein, who appeared on WEEI radio yesterday, challenged his team to respond.

“As much as this seems like a massive problem, this is also a tremendous opportunity,’’ he said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to respond for the second time in one regular season to a stretch of horrendous play with great opportunity ahead beyond that.

“If we can right the ship, and we will, not only will we be where we want to be at the end of the regular season, but we’re going to have great momentum headed into the postseason.’’

This week will be telling. After two games with the Blue Jays, the Sox host the Rays for four games starting Thursday.

“I’m glad we play the Rays four times coming up. If we can’t right the ship against these guys, if we can’t do what we need to do, we probably don’t deserve to get into the postseason,’’ Epstein said.

To some degree, the Sox are counting on history to repeat itself.

“We started the year 2-10. I’m not too worried about our team,’’ Jon Lester said after Sunday’s 9-1 loss against the Rays. “We’ve overcome a lot worse than what we’re going through right now.’’

The difference was the Sox had 150 games remaining after their terrible start and were healthy. Now they have 16 games remaining and a pitching staff in shambles.

The Sox had a 5.81 earned run average on their 1-6 road trip. They have a 6.61 ERA this month, 4.59 since Aug. 1.

The starters have thrown only 63 innings in the last 13 games. The bullpen has been used 53 innings in that stretch, a heavy load even with a roster bolstered by September call-ups.

The Sox have gone five consecutive games without a starting pitcher going more than five innings. That hasn’t happened since Sept. 21-25, 2001, when a team in disarray under Joe Kerrigan lost 17 of its last 28 games.

“I do think that when you have a run of bad starting pitching, it does obviously tax the bullpen, and then there’s a little bit of an effect on the offense as well,’’ Epstein said.

“These guys go to the at-bat early in the game feeling like they’re down 5-0, and sometimes they are. Sometimes it just feels that way . . . And then guys start looking at each other wondering who’s going to step up.’’

Having Tim Wakefield (6-6, 5.03) and John Lackey (12-12, 6.30) on the mound the next two nights may not change that trend. But Josh Beckett, who hasn’t pitched since spraining his ankle last Monday, threw in the bullpen yesterday and should return before the end of the week. Epstein indicated that Erik Bedard could pitch a few days after that.

Other issues could be easier to fix. Dustin Pedroia is in a 3-for-34 slump and hasn’t driven in a run since Sept. 3. But he took better swings Sunday and feels he’s close to regaining his touch at the plate.

“I’ll be fine,’’ he said. “Don’t worry about me.’’

The Sox also hope to get third baseman Kevin Youkilis back this week. He has not played since Thursday because of various injuries. His return would give the lineup more depth.

“Everything is just kind of going in a different direction at once. The good thing is we know how to figure that out and put it back together all at once,’’ David Ortiz said Sunday.

That process has to start soon. Otherwise the 2011 Red Sox may go down in history for all the wrong reasons.

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

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