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For Sox, time is fading fast

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 17, 2009 08:19 AM

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Elvis Andrus steals second base vs. the Sox Saturday in Texas. (AP)

They can't stop the run and they just got passed. Now the Red Sox are in a dogfight with the Texas Rangers, of all teams, and history has taught us that simply squeaking into the playoffs probably won't be good enough.

Precisely 45 games now remain for the Red Sox in this regular season, but do not be deceived. The relevant number is actually slightly less. To some degree, the Red Sox lost control of their own fate by dropping 2 of 3 to the Rangers over the weekend, slipping a half-game behind (a full game in the loss column) in the American League wild card race with seven weeks to play.

But even if the Sox make the playoffs, there is now sufficient cause to worry about what kind of shape they will be in when they get there.

Remember 2005? That was the year the Sox were forced to play the final weekend against the New York Yankees while the rested Chicago White Sox patiently waited for a dance partner. The Red Sox were swept in the first round. Meanwhile, in the two most recent years that produced world titles -- 2004 and 2007 -- the Sox were willing to sacrifice a division title for the safety net known as the wild card, largely because it would allow them to get their team in order for the start of the postseason.

This year, with the division all but gone, the Sox seemingly have no choice but to fight to the finish -- and without a net. That could strip them of their ability to prepare for the playoffs, specifically as it pertains to their pitching.

Let's turn back the clock to 2007 for a moment.

"It means a lot, but it means nothing as far as winning a World Series," manager Terry Francona said that year while the Red Sox were seemingly losing grasp of the division title. "It means a lot for what you set out to accomplish, I think. I don't think there's any getting around that, and I don't think we want to. But when it's all said and done, it won't have any bearing on how far we get into the postseason."

Translation: The Red Sox were willing to sacrifice the division for the greater good, which was the world title. They saw far more benefit in entering the playoffs as a rested-and-ready wild card than as a tired-and-taxed division winner. Remember, they could have pushed for the division title in 2004 as well. They chose not to. They subsequently began the playoffs on the road against the Los Angeles Angels, whom they wiped out in three games.

Oh, and did we mention that those same Angels were forced to play for their postseason lives on the final weekend of the regular season in Oakland, against an A's team similarly scraping to get into the playoffs? As it turned out, that series meant nothing. One week later, both the Angels and A's were gone, partly because they were in no shape to compete against better, more prepared teams.

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Jon Lester (AP)

For these Red Sox, lest anyone misunderstand, this is all about the pitching. With the weekend results in Texas, the Sox are now 32-15 in games started by the tandem of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, 34-36 in games started by anyone else.

We all understand the potential impact of Boston's top two starters in any short series. Combined, Beckett and Lester could start as many as three games in a five-game series or as many as four games in a seven-game series, assuming the Red Sox are properly positioned to make that happen. If that scenario were to unfold, nobody in his (or her) right mind would discount the Sox from any competition.

But what happens if Beckett or Lester -- or both -- have to pitch on the final weekend of the season to get the Sox into the playoffs? The Sox then might end up like their 2005 ancestors, who were forced to open the playoffs against the White Sox behind Matt Clement. Chicago won Game 1 by a preposterous 14-2 score and Boston never recovered.

At this point, a considerable 117 games into the schedule -- more than 72 percent of the season -- we know what the Red Sox are: an excellent team on the days Beckett or Lester pitches, a generally mediocre one on the days anyone else takes the mound. At the moment, the one potential exception in this argument is Tim Wakefield, behind whom the Sox are 13-4. The only questions are whether Wakefield will pitch again this year at all, and, if he does, how effectively he will pitch. That makes him as big a variable as any other.

At this stage, we know what the Sox are. If they don't maximize every chance with Beckett and Lester, they're cooked.

"We haven't played up to our capability, that's for sure," Mike Lowell told reporters following Sunday's loss. "If today was the last game of the season, I think we'd all be crying right now. But we still have a month and a half of baseball left and a chance to turn it around. I think we've got to look at it as that. But we can't keep playing the way we are. We have to improve in more than just one area.

"We're not going to trade nine guys. We have to do it with the guys we have. We're capable of it. We've just got to get more hits."

Whether the Sox can do that is difficult to say, particularly following a couple of recent moves that have changed the roster. Victor Martinez came and Justin Masterson went. Alex Gonzalez is now the shortstop. The Sox played much of the weekend with a makeshift group thanks to the suspension of Kevin Youkilis and a groin injury to J.D. Drew -- and it showed. While the Rangers ran wild against Brad Penny -- that's 27 of 29 in steal attempts against him this year -- the bottom third of the Boston lineup was a shallow as a kiddie pool.

Beginning tomorrow, the Sox will play a three-game series in Toronto. Then they will begin a 10-game homestand against the Yankees, White Sox, and Jays. After that, they have a seven-game road trip to Tampa and Chicago. The midseason creampuffs have been erased from the Boston schedule and now the Sox are doing the chasing, all at a time when the Rangers will be playing the bulk of their games against the A's and Mariners.

The point?

If the Red Sox don't get a lead -- and soon -- it may not matter in the long run. Because they will have no more games to play.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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