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Boston Red Sox have real reason to worry

On Aug. 31 at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees 9-5 behind home runs from Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Jason Varitek, and Josh Beckett's seven innings and eight strikeouts. Daniel Bard pitched a perfect eighth, Jonathan Papelbon closed it out and Red Sox Nation cheered its 1.5-game lead over the Yankees with a little Manilow and plenty of high-fives, toasts to all of their MVP candidates and talk of how they would fare against Roy Halladay in the World Series.

The Tampa Bay Rays? Red Sox Nation admired their scrappiness and how they play with a lot of heart. And, sure, you had to give Joe Maddon some credit, he always seems to get the most out of his guys, but he does wear those artsy glasses that you don’t see at Sully’s Pub and he’s no Francona.

The Tampa Bay Rays? Yes, a nice little club. But they were nine games behind the Red Sox as September began. According to coolstandings.com, the Red Sox had a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs; the Rays had a 1.7 percent chance. Print those playoffs tickets.

But September did begin and the Red Sox have gone 4-13. They haven’t won two games in a row since sweeping Oakland in a doubleheader on Aug. 27. The pitching staff has a 5.98 ERA in September. The rotation is averaging less than five innings per start this month and a starter hasn’t gone more than seven innings since Tim Wakefield on Aug. 14. Josh Beckett threw the staff’s last complete game on June 14. John Lackey entered September with a 5.94 ERA and has managed to raise that to 6.19. Bard has lost three games and the bullpen is 0-5.

The Rays actually haven’t played lights out in September, going 11-6, but they swept the Red Sox last weekend in Tampa (increasing their playoff odds to 11.4 percent and lowering Boston’s to 88.2). Two losses in Baltimore left the Rays four games behind the Red Sox entering their four-game series (playoffs: back down to 4.8 percent). But the Rays play with a fearlessness that emanates from Maddon, the best manager in the game. As first evidenced during the 2008 playoffs, when he made September call-up David Price his closer, he’s not afraid to use any player in any situation.

They run the bases aggressively and he moves guys around in the batting order -- the most games in one place in the lineup is Evan Longoria's 79 games in the No. 3 spot; compare that to the luxury Francona has owned, with the top five players in his lineup all starting more than 100 games in those spots.

In Thursday’s 9-2 win, Maddon allowed rookie Jeremy Hellickson to go 117 pitches, his second-longest stint of the season. Red Sox Nation blamed a broken bat for a seven-run defeat. "I think enough things haven't gone our way, so I'll take it," B.J. Upton said of his shattered bat that affected Marco Scutaro fielding a potential inning-ending grounder. Maddon said maybe it was a sign. I think the sign was Longoria smashing a three-run homer off a rookie named Kyle Weiland.

Beckett returned from his sprained ankle to outpitch James Shields in Friday’s 4-3 victory, overcoming Longoria’s first-inning two-run homer. Maddon was ejected after arguing some questionable strike calls by home-plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt (replays seemed to confirm Maddon’s conviction). But what stood out to me were the postgame quotes. "We're still in good position if we can get tomorrow's and Sunday's game. That still puts us in pretty good shape," Maddon said.

"This is exciting. I was as nervous as can be,” Francona said.

On Saturday, the Rays won 4-3. It was classic Maddon. He pulled Jeff Niemann after five innings for prized prospect Matt Moore, appearing in just his second big league game. He had given up a home run in his first appearance earlier in the week. With one out in the sixth, Moore walked Adrian Gonzalez (on four pitches) and David Ortiz (on a 3-2 pitch way out of the strike zone). How many managers would have left the rookie in? Anybody? Maddon not only left him (Moore escaped the inning), but had him pitch the seventh and eighth as well.

On Sunday, the Rays appeared to be in dire straits when Price had to leave after four innings after taking a line drive off his chest. Maddon brought in rookie lefty Jake McGee, who had thrown more than one inning just once and never more than 27 pitches in any of his 32 appearances. McGee pitched 2.2 innings and threw 43 pitches. Fearless. Four other relievers closed out the 8-5 victory.

"Now it becomes more viable. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and now it's not attached to an oncoming train,” Maddon said.

But is it really viable? Sure, Boston’s playoff odds remain at 90.3 percent chance and Tampa’s at 8.5 percent. Sure, Tampa plays seven of their final 10 games against the Yankees and Boston plays seven of their final 10 against the Orioles. If Boston goes 6-4, Tampa has to go 8-2 just to tie. Impossible?

A quick rundown of some recent September chokes during the wild-card era show the Red Sox are anything but safe right now.

2009 Tigers: Up seven games on Sept. 6, the Twins had cut their lead to three games with 10 remaining (Detroit’s playoff odds: 91.2 percent). The Tigers split a four-game series with the Twins and still led by three with four games remaining (odds: 96.0 percent), but lost three in a row to drop into a first-place tie. Justin Verlander started on the final day of the season to clinch a tie, but the Twins won the memorable 12-inning tiebreaker.

2007 Mets: Like the Red Sox, the Mets held a commanding lead in mid-September, seven games over the Phillies with 17 games left. Their playoffs odds: 99.4 percent. They lost five in a row, but rallied to win four of their next five. With seven games left, they were still up 2.5 games (playoffs odds: 97.3 percent). They lost six of those final seven, losing not only the NL East to the Phillies by one game, but the wild card by two games. (The next year the Mets would possess a 90 percent shot in September of making the playoffs, only to blow that as well.)

2005 Indians: With seven games remaining, the Indians were 92-63 and trailed the White Sox by 1.5 games, but led the Yankees and Red Sox by 1.5 games in the wild-card race. Their odds of winning one of the two playoff spots: 95.5 percent. But they lost three of four to lowly Tampa Bay and got swept by the White Sox. The Yankees and Red Sox both finished 5-3 and Cleveland missed the postseason by two games.

1995 Angels: At one point in August, the Angels’ playoff odds were calculated at 99.9 percent. With 17 games left, leading by six games, they were still 98.9 percent. They lost nine a row and needed to win their final five just to force a tiebreaker with Seattle, which the Mariners won.

Two notes: Those playoff odds seems a little high if you ask me. More importantly, the Red Sox aren’t the same team right now as the one that has outscored its opponents by 146 runs, and one which the computer would calculate as a much stronger team than Tampa. Even with Beckett back and Erik Bedard scheduled to return this week, the rotation is still scuffling. The manager is nervous. Red Sox Nation is sweating. And the light in the tunnel? Maybe it’s the Rays, the little engine that could.

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