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Opportunity knocks for the Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 23, 2010 03:17 PM

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This is a do-or-die week for the Never Say Die Sox. It's either the beginning of a run or the beginning of the end.

With 37 games to go the Red Sox are not just competing with the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. They're competing against the calendar. As the conclusion of the season gets nearer and the standings remain stationary -- the Sox trail the Rays by 5 1/2 games and the Yankees by 6 1/2 -- the likelihood of playoff baseball in Boston this autumn begins to fade like a vacation tan.

The odds are already stacked against the Olde Towne Team since Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron are on the disabled list instead of Terry Francona's lineup card. But the Sox, to their credit, have been like one of those inexpungible villains from a hackneyed horror film -- just when you think they're dead they come back for more.

If the Sox are going to do more than just prolong their perceived inevitable demise, they need to make this week in August an august one. The Sox have seven games remaining this month, six between tonight and Sunday. They are 12-9 so far this month, the exact same record as the Rays and a game better than the Yankees. That further highlights the lost opportunities of the back-to-back collapses in Toronto and Texas on Aug. 12 and Aug. 13.

The schedule is an enemy overall, but this week it is an unlikely ally. Opportunity is knocking on the door of 4 Yawkey Way. The Sox have a three-game series against Seattle, starting tonight, followed by an off-day and then a three-game set with the Rays at Tropicana Field. It's a golden opportunity to gain some ground in the playoff chase.

In a star-crossed season, the stars are aligned for the Sox to make a run and make amends for some blown chances.

They close out their nine-game homestand (4-2, thus far) against a Seattle team that couldn't hit their way out of a Starbucks coffee cup. The Mariners, who were held up by the stat-crunching baseball cognoscenti as the model for run prevention, are last in the majors in runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base-plus-slugging).

That's a perfect match for scuffling, erstwhile aces John Lackey, who nearly no-hit the M's the only time he faced them this season, and Josh Beckett, who a month ago today came off the DL and held the Mariners to one run over 5 2/3 innings.

Beckett and Lackey have been shaky of late and sub-par all season, but if they can't beat the feeble Mariners then it's sayonara for the Sox' season anyway.

A sweep of Seattle is almost a must leading into the weekend series with the Rays, who finish up a West Coast swing in Anaheim. The only impediment to wiping out the Mariners is their excellent ace, Felix Hernandez, whom the Sox are scheduled to face on Wednesday afternoon.

Now, it's obvious why the Sox tried to trade for this guy. In two of his last three starts, Hernandez has pitched eight shutout innings, striking out 13 one time and 11 the next. He held the Yankees scoreless on Friday in the Bronx, punching out 11 Pinstripes. It's a testament to the offensive ineptitude of the Mariners that Hernandez has a sub-.500 record (9-10), despite ranking behind only Clay Buchholz in the American League in earned run average at 2.51.

But the Sox even catch a break in facing Hernandez because they're scheduled to send Jon Lester to the hill. Lester lost his only appearance against Seattle this season but rang up a season-high 13 Ks in 7 2/3 innings. He can match Hernandez and overmatch the Mariners.

The Sox will need to take at least two out of three from Tampa Bay. No easy task considering the Rays lead the season series, 8-4, and have swept the Red Sox twice this season, including the last time the two teams played at the Trop. But the Sox own a sweep of their own over the Rays at the Juice Joint, and they will have their ace, Buchholz, pitching in the series.

Those games against the Rays are crucial because after that series the teams meet just three more times, Sept. 6-8 at Fenway. For those September games to mean anything the Sox have to win this upcoming series with the Maddon Men.

All you can ask if you're the Red Sox at this point in the season is to have the opportunity to control your own fate. That's what this week represents.

A week from today we'll have a much better gauge on this Red Sox season. Either the season will be nearing empty or the Sox postseason hopes will have gained some more fuel.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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