Red Sox turn to Lester in final game

BALTIMORE -- All the rest of it is now just background noise. On what is supposed to be the last day of the regular season but might not be, there are only two ways this can break.

"We're either going to be good enough or we're not,'' Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We can write this ending however we choose. We can be the team that got beat up, came back, put it together and went on this great run, or we can allow this to defeat us. Hopefully, we have enough to have it be the first. That's obviously how we feel.''

It will either be remembered as one of baseball's epic collapses, having the worst record in September (7-19 at the moment) of any team that entered the month in first place, or grist for a compelling saga of endurance, survival and -- the Sox hope -- ultimate triumph.

"We're playing like it's the playoffs already,'' said DH David Ortiz, whose future with the club remains uncertain. "It's fun, but it wears you out.''

The Sox enter play Wednesday tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League wild card, both teams winning in heart-stopping fashion the night before. The Rays will be throwing ace left-hander David Price on full rest against the Yankees, whose No. 1 priority is to avoid overexerting themselves before opening their playoff run Friday night at home.

If the teams remain tied at the end of play Wednesday, there will be a one-game playoff at Tropicana Field on Thursday (4:07 p.m.), the Rays having won the right to be at home by virtue of their better head-to-head record against the Sox this season.

The Sox are entrusting their fate to the strong left arm of Jon Lester, who has faltered badly down the stretch and will be pitching on three days' rest for only the second time in his career.

"I've got a lot of faith in Jon," pitcher Josh Beckett said after he'd stumbled in his final start Monday night. "I've been with Lester for a long time, and I don't think there's anybody I'd rather have out there."

The short break between starts should not be too burdensome, Francona insisted.

"He only threw 55 pitches,'' Francona said, referring to Lester's last outing against the Yankees, when he last just 2 2/3 innings Friday night. "It's not like he was sitting at 112 [pitches], high intensity. He got out at a pretty low number. I don't think he'll be fighting anything physically.''

What Lester will be combatting, however, is the perception that he may not be equal to the challenge, given the way he has performed in his last three starts. Friday night, he was roughed up for a season-high eight runs by the Yankees while registering just eight outs in a 9-1 loss.

Since throwing seven scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on Sept. 6, Lester has lasted a total of 13 2/3 innings in his last three starts, surrendering a ghastly 16 earned runs on 21 hits and eight walks, numbers that don't reflect his typical excellence. His performance has raised red flags, as one major league scout noted after his outing in the Bronx.

"He's either hurt or out of gas or both,'' the scout said. "He couldn't command his cutter, and that's the pitch he's buried people with all season. He doesn't have the finish he had before. I think he's tender.''

Lester has consistently denied that he is having physical issues, and Francona made it clear Tuesday that the team will give him every chance to rise to the occasion Wednesday night against the Orioles, who are countering with right-hander Alfredo Simon (4-9, 4.85).

"I think fans and a lot of you [media] love this, to have all hands on deck and get the starter out in the first inning,'' he said. "That's not a good way to win. We need to try to let the guy settle in. That's always the best way.''

There are other elements adding intrigue to Wednesday night's regular-season finale (or not). Rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway had one of those nights that create instant legends Tuesday, hitting two home runs in his first start behind the plate, throwing out a runner and making a huge defensive play in the ninth on a dribbler into no-man's land.

Lavarnway was playing only because regular catchers Jason Varitek (knee) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (collarbone) were hurt. But Saltalamacchia said late Tuesday night that he is physically able to play Wednesday. Does Francona sit the kid? Given the way he usually does things, the answer is probably yes. But he undoubtedly spent a sleepless night debating it.

"If I get to catch Lester tomorrow it would be a great opportunity that I would take wholeheartedly,'' Lavarnway said. "He's a great pitcher.

"Salty is our starting catcher. I hope he's all right, but if it's my turn to go, then I'll go with all I've got.''

Then came the news that Clay Buchholz did not fly back to Florida after all, even though Francona had insisted before the game that he "had to." The Red Sox would not say whether they plan to activate Buchholz on Wednesday -- he has thrown only 18 pitches in a game setting since mid-June, and that was in instructional league -- but his presence here obviously suggested that is under consideration.

There also was an unconfirmed report that the Sox were still casting about outside the organization for a warm body to pitch Thursday's playoff game if it comes to that. Francona has not revealed what the team's pitching plans are if they do face the Rays, but the choices would appear to be either John Lackey or Tim Wakefield, either of whom would be pitching on three days' rest as well.

But as much as the burden of winning rests on the pitchers, there is also this: The Sox broke out their bats in a big way Tuesday night with four home runs. Yes, the kid Lavarnway was a huge part of that, with a three-run homer in the fourth and a solo shot in the eighth. But Marco Scutaro (.382, 21 RBIs in September) and Jacoby Ellsbury also went deep, Ellsbury for the fourth time in the last four games. The Sox center fielder has hit safely in his last dozen games, in six of those games collecting multiple hits, with a finishing kick that is not the equal -- but certainly reminiscent -- of the way Yaz carried the '67 Sox.

That team was known as the Cardiac Kids. This team is probably responsible for an untold number of angioplasties. The Cardiac crew won the pennant on the final day of the season. What ending will this team write?

"I don't know if you could see it out there,'' closer Jonathan Papelbon said, describing his grueling ninth-inning, 10-pitch duel with Adam Jones for the final out Tuesday night, "but there were a couple of times I had a little grin on my face.

"I enjoy that. Baseball, man. It doesn't get any better than that.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.