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Bob Ryan

A September swoon to forget

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 25, 2011

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NEW YORK - The first inning was nice. The first four batters, truth be told.

Jon Lester dispatched the first four Yankee hitters on 14 pitches, and given his track record in New York, Red Sox fans were entitled to dream a little. Jon Lester was going to take care of business. He was going to give his team the quality pitching performance it so desperately needs.

But this is September of 2011, and the Boston Red Sox exist in an alternate universe.

For two-plus months, they were the absolute best team in baseball, going from minus eight to plus 31. But now they are having an historically bad September, and they are showing zero signs of being able to turn it around. They were pounded by the Yankees, 9-1, yesterday. There are only questions. There are no answers.

''To be honest with you,'' said David Ortiz, who has hit one homer and driven in eight runs this month, ''when you play this game you don't expect anything bad to happen. You expect to play good and win games. We are in a funk right now. What you have to do right now is laugh. You don't expect a team this good to struggle the way we have.''

Yesterday's game was lost in a six-batter stretch of the second inning. After Alex Rodriguez grounded to third, MVP candidate Robinson Cano poked an opposite-field single through the hole. Nick Swisher walked and Andruw Jones reached when his chopper in the hole was fielded by Marco Scutaro, who passed up a play at third and threw late to second, leaving the bases loaded for scary rookie Jesus Montero.

He singled to left, scoring Cano. Russell Martin then hit a sinking liner to left, a ball Carl Crawford can get. Except this is September of 2011 and if something can go wrong for the Sox, it will. Crawford made a dive, but he couldn't come up with the ball and two runs scored.

Derek Jeter was up next, and he hit Lester's first pitch over the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center. It was 6-0, and that was way more than enough runs for Freddy Garcia to work with. It was only the second inning, but already the Red Sox were guaranteed their 17th loss in 22 September games.

Playoffs? How can anyone talk playoffs? How about winning a game? The last time the Sox did that was last Monday night.

We talk all the time about the depleted starting rotation, but Lester was the man who not only is supposed to be the team's best pitcher, but also a man who has mastered the Yankees throughout his career. But Jon Lester was yanked after 2" innings and 17 batters, having been reached for eight hits and a like number of earned runs.

In his last three starts, covering 13" innings, Lester has been reached for 21 hits and 16 earned runs. ''There is nothing physically wrong with me,'' he declared. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Things are so weird around the team right now that by flaming out in such dramatic fashion he might have conceivably accomplished something good. He could now start Wednesday in Baltimore, if the Sox need that game to make it into the, if you'll pardon the expression, playoffs.

''He didn't throw a ton of pitches,'' Terry Francona pointed out. ''So if we need him, that will help.''

Now that's really seeking out the silver lining in the darkest imaginable cloud.

It's hard to imagine a bigger juxtaposition between supposed rivals than what we have witnessed this month. When September dawned, the Sox were in first place and the Yankees were scrambling to find starting pitchers. That is still sort of the case, but somehow the Yanks just keep on winning, thanks mainly to a deep lineup that is now frighteningly deeper with the addition of Montero.

The baseball world has known about this young man for some time, and now we are seeing that the hype about his bat was not a myth. He had three hits as Joe Girardi's DH yesterday. There was the aforementioned RBI single in the second. There was a titanic two-run double over Jacoby Ellsbury's head in the third. And there was a hard liner of a solo homer to right off Junichi Tazawa in the sixth. Note the distribution: one to left, one to center, and one to right. He is not yet 22 years old, and the Sox will be looking at him for a long time to come. In 52 at-bats he has compiled an OBP of 1.049.

With the division clinched, the Yankees are loosey goosey, even if the manager thinks he needs six pitchers (three in the seventh) to preserve a 9-1 win.

The Sox? They insist they're not pressing, that they just need that one win to turn things around. Of course, they've had that occasional win that was supposed to represent The Cure and they come right back the next night to play another terrible game and lose again. They haven't won two in a row since taking a doubleheader from Oakland Aug. 27.

''We all want to win,'' said Francona. ''It's up to us to go out and win. We know what's in front of us. We just have to go out and play better.''

Two games today: Tim Wakefield in the afternoon and John Lackey in the evening. I wish I were making that up.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan9@globe.com.

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