Despite the fact that the Red Sox are only two games in back of the Yankees for first place in the AL East and a mere half-game behind the Chicago White Sox for the wild card - a deficit they can make up mind you by not even playing tonight - all of New England once again finds itself in that old familiar panic of the waning days of summertime fun.
With yesterday’s crushing defeat at the hands of the last-place Devil Rays, the former first place Red Sox are now just 15-16 since the end of interleague play early last month. We’re a week into August, and they’ve won just twice this month, an improbable comeback victory against the Indians last week, and a Curt Schilling win on Friday in St. Pete.
In fact, the last Boston starter to record a victory besides Schilling was Josh Beckett, way back on July 24, two weeks ago today.
While it’s too soon to label this struggling stretch an all-out implosion, there are enough concerning signs to hint that perhaps Tim McCarver and Joe Buck will be steering clear of Boston come October.
Remember those Toronto Blue Jays? As of July 26, they were just 5 ½ games in back of Boston, still in a legitimate hunt for the division and wild card. Today they are 9 ½ back, and an afterthought for the postseason (eight games out in the wild card). That’s a pretty quick turnaround, and one Red Sox fans should pay attention to for sure, considering their favorite sons have lost 4 ½ games total on the Yankees since July 25, when they had a 2 ½ game lead.
In other words, stop the bleeding. Now. Or else.
No better place to do that than Kansas City, home of the 38-73 Royals. Although it’s not like the Red Sox rolled all over the Royals last time they paid a visit to Fenway. Boston swept that three-game series, yet with an aggregate score of 7-4, including back-to-back 1-0 affairs. A troika of games against the AL’s worst may be the recipe for rebounding, but that doesn’t guarantee the Sox have all the proper ingredients.
Through six games this month, Red Sox pitchers are getting hit to the clip of a .316 batting average, worse than anyone in the majors outside of Arizona and Kansas City. Their 4.89 ERA for the month is higher only than Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Kansas City (after allowing 22 hits to the Twins yesterday, a robust 7.55). How much of that has to do with the loss of Jason Varitek and his game-calling skills can’t be overshadowed.
Let’s face it, if we see Varitek on the field again this season it will be a welcome surprise. Even a six-week prognosis would bring him back only in time for the final two weeks of the season, and it’s no guarantee that his knee is going to recover in time.
The Sox front office is under a lot of heat for not pulling the trigger on a Bobby Abreu-like deal, but the situation is as such that it would have taken a lot more than Abreu and Lidle to help aid this team’s wrongs, which are beginning to be exposed as pitching first and foremost. Not to take too much away from Jason Johnson's nice outing yesterday, but can you believe he is your No. 5 starter right now? Johnson, Kason Gabbard, David Wells, David Pauley, Lenny DiNardo, and Kyle Snyder have combined to give the Red Sox a grand total of three wins from the No. 4-5 slot of the rotation, two from Snyder, which I guess makes him the unquestionable ace of the group.
As the Yankees start to rip off wins at a pace that will make Sox fans cringe, the most crowded pennant race in recent memory is starting to pick up a bit more, with the distinct possibility that the wild card could come from any division for the first time since 2002. The Red Sox and Twins are tied for second this morning behind the White Sox. And while the Oakland A’s have gotten on their annual hot streak, fresh off a sweep of the Mariners, creating a three-game gap in the West, the Anaheim Angels have been one of the hottest teams in the second half, with an outside shot (nine games back) that they too could be wild card hunting in the end.
The Sox needed wins in Tampa. They need them even worse in Kansas City, particularly with an 11-game stretch beginning next week against the Tigers, Yankees, and Angels, consecutive series that drown them for all intents and purposes. In the past, maybe that's not such a concern, as the Red Sox played some of their best ball when they were down. See 2004 for any and all examples. But this version doesn't seem to have that never say die attitude, the perception of a lack of respect that guys like Kevin Millar used as a rallying call for his teammates. There may be a feeling of immediacy in the clubhouse, but that doesn't necessarily translate to the stubborn determination that the previous group made their very identity.
While Curt Schilling has been Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett has been more Matt Clement, reminiscent of Way Back John Wasdin, allowing 31 homers on the year. David Wells is pitching more like Kip Wells, who would have made things even worse had the Sox sealed a deal for him last Monday. Jon Lester may show growing pains, here and there, and the kids in the pen have exhibited lately that they still have a little ways to go in order to be considered dependable.
Was yesterday frustrating? Yeah, but what else did you expect when Julian Tavarez enters a game in which the Rays have swatted comeback homers but another homer? It was inevitable.
And speaking of comebacks, let's not forget that if it weren’t for Mark Loretta’s and David Ortiz’s game-winning hits last week, the Red Sox right now would be 1-9 in their last 10 games, six of which were played at home, where they usually dominate the competition.
So, there’s a sobering thought for your Monday morning.
This is a pivotal week for the Red Sox, needing to pile up wins against lesser teams before they face the big boys head-to-head. They’ve done little but fizzle and could find themselves in quite the pickle when it comes time to go head-to-head with the Yankees at Fenway next weekend for five games. If they don't get it in gear, you can bet the NY tabloids will be prepping their Boston Massacre spreads.
For the Sox to win 95 games again this season, they only need to go 30-22 the rest of the way, a mark well within reach. Or one would think. The fact is they haven't played that well in quite some time. And they'd better if they don't want to find themselves looking up anytime soon.