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Sox stars must swing into action

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 18, 2011 11:15 PM

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Many words were spent this summer breezily debating the trio's worthiness and likelihood of winning baseball's most prestigious individual honor.

Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and to a slightly lesser extent, Dustin Pedroia, each made a legitimate case at one time or another as the American League's most valuable player.

Those days cannot be as long ago as they feel right now, and the schedule tells us they aren't. The collapse of the Red Sox -- yes, mostly injury-induced, but a collapse nonetheless -- has been the equivalent of an elevator plummeting without warning. There's nothing left but the desperate hope that the free-fall will somehow screech to halt before everything crashes to the ground.

You know the gory details; I'll rehash them as briefly as possible and out of obligation. Less than a month ago, the Red Sox led the wild card race by 11 games over the Tampa Bay Rays. This morning, with a doubleheader against the Orioles looming, that lead has shriveled to two, with poor, overmatched Kyle Weiland and pitiful, overpaid John Lackey charged with starting for the Sox. It's not exactly Pedro-Schilling 2004. Heck, it's probably not Pedro-Schilling now.

The Sox' rotation, which consists of tough-minded but sore-ankled Josh Beckett, the suddenly exasperating Jon Lester (you wonder whether the oblique issue is still bothering him and he's trying to macho his way through it), and a collection of semi-prospects, hapless misfits, and one ancient knuckleballer, isn't going to save them.

The usually potent offense -- leading the major leagues in runs per game (5.39), leading in on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS, but currently putting up its lowest monthly totals since April (.265 average, .770 OPS) -- simply must pick up the pitching staff. It's the only way they can hold off the Rays.

The Red Sox' fate depends upon the offense's ability to cover for at least 60 percent of the rotation, and that begins with the three alleged MVP candidates Gonzalez, Ellsbury, and Pedroia. Any potential individual honors are a faded afterthought at this point, and any recognition for their statistical feats will stand as a cruel joke should this epic flop concludes without a postseason berth.

Unless.

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Unless Gonzalez reminds us that at one point this season some were calling him the best Red Sox hitter since Ted Williams, and it didn't entirely feel like hyperbole. Unless Ellsbury wins one game with a homer, another with a well-timed steal, and a third with a defensive gem. Unless Pedroia puts them on his back and drags them to Detroit.

Yes, we're clinging to unless. Because it's just about all we have at this point. And because none of that is unreasonable over these last 10 games.

This is not a request for Gonzalez, Ellsbury or Pedroia, to play the role of Yaz in '67, to duplicate his possible dream of a performance during the pennant race in the final 10 games of that regular season, when he put up these numbers:

44 plate appearances, 37 at-bats, 20 hits, 11 runs, 4 homers, 11 RBIs, 6 walks, and seven hits over his final eight at-bats.

ricejim78finn.jpgThat, as Sox fans of a certain vintage will tell you, was once in a lifetime. But another crucial late-season performance by a Red Sox slugger may be attainable. Here's Jim Rice over the final 10 games of the 1978 season, the one-game playoff excluded:

47 plate appearances, 43 at-bats, 11 hits, 8 runs, 4 homers, 7 RBIs, 4 walks, and home run in the Game 162 victory over the Blue Jays.

It's a nice daydream, but this afternoon at least, Gonzalez, Ellsbury, and Pedroia don't seem intent on cooperating. The first pitch of the 153d game of the season was about to be delivered as I began writing this, and when I finished, the 66th loss of the season -- and 14th against four victories this September -- was in the books.

Jeremy Guthrie, a slightly above average (career 105+ adjusted ERA) pitcher whom the Sox have typically pummeled over the years (4.41 ERA entering today in 17 starts), earned the win in Baltimore's 6-5 victory. Weiland, who will get all of next summer in Pawtucket to try to recover from this, gave up three homers and looked like he wanted to burrow a hole in the mound, and the big guns didn't pick him up.

Ellsbury made the last out and hit into a big double play. Pedroia also hit into a double play. Gonzalez had two hits and two RBIs, but left three runners stranded . . . and hit into a double play.

Tonight, the historically bad John Lackey goes for the Red Sox, while the historically bad Brian Matusz takes the mound for the Orioles. The Sox should score some runs, and they'll need to. Their MVP chances may have evaporated along with the Sox' wild card lead, but it's time for Gonzalez and Ellsbury and Pedroia to deliver like Rice in '78, and as close to humanly possible to Yaz's legendary clutch effort in '67.

The Red Sox' season -- and perhaps their individual reputations, too -- suddenly depend on it.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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