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Dan Shaughnessy

Bad old memories closing in

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / September 16, 2011

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There was a time when Red Sox fans expected the Local Nine to collapse. It was an autumnal rite: The leaves turn brown and the Red Sox turn to dust.

I was a mere college kid in the summer of 1974 when the Red Sox led the vaunted Orioles by seven games on Aug. 23, but wound up finishing third, seven games back.

One year after that collapse, the Sox built another huge lead in late summer. Still, we worried. When the Orioles came to town in September, Baltimore manager Earl Weaver tried to scare all of New England, saying, “We’ve crawled out of more coffins than Bela Lugosi.’’

The Sox survived that surge, but three years later blew a 14-game lead. Those star-crossed Sox won 99 games, but failed to make the playoffs (Bucky Dent). Orioles first base coach Jim Frey chatted with Sox first baseman George Scott during the collapse, and heard Boomer explain the fold by saying, “Some of these guys are choking, man.’’

At the time, Scott was something like 1 for 24.

All of which brings us to Sept. 16, 2011. The baseball world is very different now. The Red Sox no longer have the identity of chokers. Everything changed in the biblical October of 2004. There is no longer extra weight in the Sox’ home uniforms. These Red Sox aren’t asked about the sins of their fathers. They are allowed to play in peace, not measured against cataclysmic collapses from the 1940s and 1970s.

So why are we a little nervous today?

Because the Red Sox have seen their once insurmountable playoff lead wither to a mere three games with 13 to play. Last night’s uber-ugly 9-2 loss to the Rays (Boston’s lineup at the finish looked like something from Fort Myers in March) made things a little too close for comfort. Tampa is here for another three games and could pull even Sunday afternoon with a sweep of the next three.

Feels like old times.

On Aug. 7, the Red Sox were 11 games ahead of the Rays. Now it is three.

Tampa manager Joe Maddon knows about these things. Maddon was the first base coach of the 1995 California Angels, who had a 12-game lead with 38 to play. The Angels failed to make the playoffs.

“I was with those ’95 Angels, man,’’ said Maddon. “I lived it. We were annihilating everybody. But it was awful. So why can’t it happen again to somebody else?’’

Could it happen to your Boston Red Sox - the “Best Team Ever,’’ the team with the $160 million payroll (four times that of the Rays); the team with 15 All-Stars, two world championships this decade, and six playoff appearances in eight seasons?

Maybe.

Strange things happen when you are in one of these free falls. Black cats walk in front of the dugout. Baseball bats break into pieces and force your shortstop to miss an inning-ending grounder.

Did you see the awful, strange play in the third inning last night? It was still 0-0 and the Sox were set to get out of the inning when Kyle Weiland induced a two-out grounder to short off the bat of B.J. Upton. Unfortunately, a large portion of Upton’s bat broke off and followed the ball toward shortstop Marco Scutaro. Scoots was unable to dodge the bat and field the ball simultaneously, so the ball skidded between his legs, Buckner style. Then came a three-run homer and your basic jail break. Ballgame.

“About as unfortunate as can be,’’ said Sox manager Terry Francona.

Bad luck or no bad luck, it’s impossible not to call these Sox underachievers. It’s OK to be outplayed by the money bags from Philadelphia and New York, but these Sox have won fewer games than the Tigers, Brewers, and Diamondbacks.

Please, no talk of injuries. Every team is hurting. This is not 2010, when the Red Sox were truly wiped out by a rash of broken bones.

In the face of all this negativity, Francona was in a great mood before last night’s loss. Entering the interview room three hours before the first pitch, he saw a familiar New York Daily News scribe and said, “Either we’re playing the Yankees or we suck!’’

Later in the session, when someone asked about the playoff pitching rotation, Francona summoned the ghost of Jim Mora and said, “Playoffs!’’ Then added, “I’ve always wanted to do that.’’

He was unflappable. “Why drag your tail because you didn’t play good for a week,’’ asked the manager. “They [the Rays] are good. We’re a little beat up.’’

The Rays are good. The Rays are 10-5 against the Red Sox this year. They have beaten the Sox six straight times. They have outscored the Sox, 81-45. They are 5-1 at Fenway, beating the locals by an aggregate, 39-12.

“Their pitching has really done a good job against our hitters,’’ acknowledged Francona. “They’re a hard team to play.’’

After last night’s beatdown, he added, “I’m sure they feel confident. They’ve done it a number of times to us.’’

Not to pile on, but Kevin Youkilis (back, hip, hernia) and Jed Lowrie have already been ruled out of tonight’s game.

At this hour, the Rays are a better team than the Red Sox. Sorry. It’s not even close.

The Sox are staggering. They have lost seven of eight, nine of 11. Their late-season struggles have brought a lot of attention. The New York Times is here to record the struggle. Tomorrow’s game will be on Fox. The Wall Street Journal yesterday headlined a piece with, “So Why Isn’t Boston Panicking? Fans Greet a Potential Epic Fade With . . . Calm Reflection.’’

Everybody still calm out there?

“How you view it can put on more stress than needed,’’ said Francona. “We can handle this by ourselves. I’m not worried about how guys will react.’’

Across the field, Maddon was saying, “We really believed we had a chance to do this. I thought we could be viable this year. You can’t stop believing. There’s no other way. I’ve always believed we could get back in this.’’

The Rays are back in it. And the Sox need a win. Tonight or tomorrow.

The Sox have Josh Beckett going tonight and Jon Lester going tomorrow. But the seeds of doubt have been planted. A 99 percent chance of making the playoffs has become a 90 percent chance. Ghosts of past failures are being summoned.

Almost time to panic.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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