BOSTON -- For the first time in a long time, the Boston Red Sox are playing September baseball and watching the rest of the AL East from the bottom of the division.
The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Red Sox, 4-3, on Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, and Boston has now lost 11 of its last 12 games. With the loss, the Red Sox fell 15 games below .500 for the first time since 1992.
Instead of postseason contenders, the Red Sox find themselves in the role of potential spoiler for the remainder of the season, while the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays fight for the division title and a wild card.
Prior to Sunday's loss, Red Sox veteran David Ortiz sat in the dugout and discussed not only the prospect of being shut down for the remainder of the season with a recurring right Achilles strain, but also his take on the AL East. And he picked the Orioles to win it all this fall.
"If you're in the Yankees' situation, that's the team you want to be careful of," Ortiz said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they get to be the world champions. They've got what you need to compete in the playoffs."
The Red Sox have Monday off before hosting the Yankees in a three-game series beginning Tuesday night. New York beat the Orioles on Sunday, 13-3, to regain first place in the division by one game. Baltimore will host the Rays in a three-game set beginning Tuesday.
Even though the Red Sox are out of the race, based on recent experience, they know how exciting -- or depressing -- the final few weeks of the season can be.
After all, the players are fans too.
"I'm going to tell you right now, I've been watching Baltimore a lot, and man, they've got everything you need at this time and at this point of the season," Ortiz said. "Their pitching has been outstanding, and then you have guys that were kind of in between during the season, now hitting up."
The Orioles' Mark Reynolds, who has been on a tear for more than a month now, has impressed Ortiz. Reynolds has posted a .320 average with 19 walks, 5 doubles, 13 home runs, 21 runs scored and 27 RBIs in 29 games since Aug. 6.
"What he's been doing the last month reminds me of a Little Papi," Ortiz said with a laugh. "He's been doing it, and my boy Adam Jones. They're playing well. They're doing their thing. Pretty much the way they're playing right now, that's how they play every September. The difference is now they've been playing like this the whole year."
Baltimore, which helped knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs on the last night of the season last September, suffered a major blow on Saturday night when Nick Markakis broke his left thumb when he was hit by a pitch by Yankees starter CC Sabathia.
Markakis had suffered a broken hamate bone earlier this season and spent more than a month on the disabled list from May 30 to July 8. Once he returned, Orioles manager Buck Showalter made Markakis the club's leadoff hitter. Until his injury on Saturday, he hit .335 (74-for-221) with 15 doubles, 2 triples, 5 homers, 34 runs scored and 28 RBIs from the leadoff spot, and the Orioles posted a 33-21 record during that stretch.
Meanwhile, the Yankees, who had a 10-game lead on July 18, have seen it disappear. Three times in the last week the Orioles and Yankees have been tied for the top spot in the division.
In fact, the Orioles' controversial win over the Yankees on Saturday was a hot topic in the Red Sox clubhouse. In the game, the Yankees' Mark Teixeira was called out at first on a game-ending double play when replays showed he was clearly safe. Had he been called safe, the tying run would have scored.
"That could be a deciding factor if they get to the playoffs or not," Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Just one game. It's just like us last year. I hate it. I hate that it happens and I don't think it should be decided like that. I think it should be decided by letting the teams play. In a big situation like that, it's tough. I hate it and it's happened a lot this year."
Asked whether there should be more use of instant replay by umpires, Saltalamacchia was torn.
"I don't know," he said. "They contradict themselves because they want to speed the game up and they're constantly saying, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go' and I think they've made calls to speed games up, but at the same time, they want to do replays now and that's going to slow the game up."
The loss on Saturday could come back to haunt the Yankees in the final days of the season, which is something the Red Sox are familiar with. The Orioles put the finishing nail in Boston's coffin on the final day of the season last September in Baltimore, as the Red Sox finished the month with a 7-20 record and failed to reach the playoffs.
With the Yankees coming to Fenway Park this week, the Red Sox can play up the idea of dealing a blow to their storied rival.
"First of all, we want to win," Saltalamacchia said. "We're only concentrating on that. Now, knowing what they're going through, as far as this tough month, yeah, we've been through it. We know what that's like, so it kind of goes to show you that anybody can go through it.
"It wasn't just us, and as much as people want to write about beer and chicken, this and that, you're seeing the Yankees go through it, so I don't think it was the fried chicken and beer. I don't think it was the manager (Terry Francona). I don't think it was any of the players on this team. This game isn't easy and that's what it comes down to and you're seeing it right now (with the Yankees). Maybe we'll be off the hook for a little while and let them take it."
The truth is, no matter what happens to the Yankees this season nothing will ever erase Boston's historic collapse last September and everything that has since followed.
The Red Sox had been perennial winners, but will miss the postseason for the third consecutive year. New York has missed the playoffs only once in the past 17 seasons. The Orioles, well, they seem to be on a crash course with baseball destiny.
Time and again this season, the majority of the baseball world had been waiting for the Orioles' fortunes to crumble. But they haven't yet. Now that they can see the finish line, it will only motivate them more to earn a postseason berth.
"The game is always hard to figure out though," Ortiz said. "Nobody who has played the game can come to you and tell you, 'I had a wonderful career and I figured everything out.' That's never going to happen. That's why when it comes to putting a ballclub together, you've got to see the strong part, and what can get you in trouble and then go at it.
"Most of the teams in our division have been based on making sure their pitching can get to a point where they can compete in this division. If you look around, Baltimore and Tampa have the best pitching pretty much out of the whole American League.
"Pitching is huge. When you can hold an offense down, it gives you an opportunity to win games."
The Red Sox's pitching has been suspect for the majority of the season. Clay Buchholz has been the only Red Sox pitcher who has been consistently good throughout summer. On Sunday, the right-hander pitched well, but still suffered the loss.
He worked 8 2/3 innings and allowed four runs on seven hits with three walks and four strikeouts. Buchholz is baffled by the prospect of the Red Sox finishing the season in last place in the AL East.
"It's the first time I've been here where that's been the case," he said. "Hopefully, this feeling that everyone has in this clubhouse will make us not want to have this feeling again. Hopefully we'll get headed in the right direction.
"It's been a long time since this team has been in this position, so we've got to try to grind through it right now."
When the Yankees arrive, the series won't have the typical late-season feeling to it because the clubs aren't fighting for divisional supremacy. This year it's the Yankees, Orioles and Rays.
"Obviously it's going to be a different feel than what people are used to around here, but we're playing spoiler," outfielder Cody Ross said. "That's all we can do now is go out and try to ruin peoples' seasons, because ours is pretty much ruined.
"Now that we're getting into playing against these guys -- the Yankees and Orioles -- the teams contending in our division it will be some exciting games, hopefully."