Rays exploit depleted Red Sox

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the course of a five-minute conversation, Kevin Youkilis called it (1) "the most strange thing ever,'' (2) "very odd" and (3) "very strange.''

The Red Sox first baseman was talking about the ankle "cramp" that caused him to abruptly leave Tuesday night's game before batting in the fourth inning. But he could have been taking a broader view of this Red Sox injury epidemic that has advanced beyond the "absurd" stage and is rapidly approaching "Biblical plague" territory.

Youkilis said he expects to play Wednesday night, but his departure Tuesday cost the Red Sox not only his bat, but that of David Ortiz, who Rays manager Joe Maddon vowed wouldn't get another pitch to hit the rest of the night. Maddon was true to his word.

He ordered Ortiz walked intentionally three times, once with first base occupied, once with the tying run on third in the ninth, leaving the game in the hands of Youkilis' replacement, one Niuman Romero. Niuman, in this case, being the Spanish word for "No miracle tonight."

"The big break for us tonight,'' Maddon said, "was the fact that Youkilis gets hurt. I mean, that's the big break.''

With Romero, a 25-year-old Venezuelan with 11 games of previous big league experience (one at first base), going hitless in his four at-bats and leaving six runners on base, the Sox lost for the second straight night to the Rays, 3-2, to fall 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees and 1 1/2 games behind second-place Tampa Bay.

Boston's main objective until reinforcements arrive after the All-Star break is to keep from falling apart in the interim. But this was the third straight loss for the Sox, even though they hung in there gamely and had a chance to win when Eric Patterson's two-out triple in the ninth off Rafael Soriano scored Bill Hall and put the tying run just 90 feet away.

"A wounded animal can be very dangerous, '' Maddon said afterward. "You're just waiting for the next hero to show up for them; they've really hung in well in spite of all their adversity. So I don't take anything for granted.''

Romero would not be that hero. And neither would Mike Cameron, who did not start Tuesday night for the usual reasons -- sore abdominal tear -- but did emerge from the dugout after Patterson tripled and Ortiz was issued his third straight free pass.

Cameron, however, did not grab a bat to hit for Romero. Francona sent him in to run for Ortiz, figuring he would steal second base and put the go-ahead run in scoring position.

Why not hit Cameron for Romero? Francona's face colored as he answered one and then another question on the subject.

"Who was going to play first?'' Francona said. "We didn't have nobody left. Even if we lose our DH, we're not going to do that.''

Ortiz could have moved to first base, with Cameron hitting for Romero and a pitcher hitting in the DH spot, but when asked whether he considered that option, Francona sounded incredulous.

''Again, you've got to help me here, if you're asking questions,'' he said. "OK, we come around to the DH spot. We're out of players. Does that not make sense? Am I missing something here?

"No, I didn't think of doing that. Is that a good enough answer? I thought what we did put us in the best position to ... Cam was going to steal, they weren't covering, it gave us a chance to have the winning run. If he dinks one in, or anything. In my opinion, that gave us the best chance to win.''

The unspoken subtext to Francona's irritated response was this: Asking the injured Cameron to win the game for you in that spot is as unfair as placing the burden on a total unknown whose next RBI in the big leagues will be his first.

Cameron has started just four of Boston's past eight games, in back-to-back games just once. This, at a time when the Sox are desperate for outfielders. He has just three hits in his past 16 at-bats. Of the 34 games in which he has played, he has driven in a run in just five of them, a total of nine RBIs.

In that context, it's understandable why Francona decided Cameron's legs were a more useful asset than his bat and that rolling the dice with Romero was no bigger a gamble than the alternative. After all, Patterson's résumé wasn't exactly bulging when he showed up in town, and all he has done in the past two nights is homer twice, double and triple, the three-base hit coming after three whiffs and a roller to second. Another no-name, Daniel Nava, singled home the first run.

But there's a bigger point to be made here: The Sox's hurts go beyond the 11 names on the disabled list, including the nine who began the season on the 25-man Opening Day roster. Cameron is playing hurt. Hideki Okajima, who gave up a bases-empty home run to Carl Crawford and now has surrendered home runs in back-to-back appearances for the first time since he jetted in from Japan, has had back issues. The bullpen needs help, which is why Pawtucket was instructed Tuesday to move Michael Bowden out of the rotation and into the 'pen.

And a big league scout who watched Daisuke Matsuzaka on Monday night noted that Matsuzaka is not following through on his pitches and is convinced that Matsuzaka has either a bad back or a bad shoulder.

All the gallantry in the world can't mask the fact that the Sox are playing on fumes.

"We'll be all right,'' Youkilis said. "Hopefully it can't get any worse. It can only get better.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.