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BALTIMORE -- For the past few seasons there has been some debate as to who was the true ace of Boston Red Sox's pitching staff.
Solid arguments could be made for both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester at different times. For the majority of the 2011 season, both have anchored the rotation and helped the Red Sox become one of the most successful teams in the majors during the summer.
As the calendar turned to September, however, both pitchers have struggled at the most crucial time of the season.
The two have combined for a 2-5 record in nine starts with a 5.73 ERA in the month. The "aces" are 0-4 with a 9.29 ERA in their past four starts combined, and 1-5, 8.18 in their past six.
|The Red Sox file out of the dugout after falling to 6-19 in September and having lost all of their wild-card lead.|
On Tuesday, it was Beckett's turn to come up with one of his vintage big-game performances, but it didn't happen as he worked six innings and allowed six runs on seven hits with four walks and five strikeouts as the lowly Baltimore Orioles defeated the Red Sox 6-3 at Camden Yards.
The loss combined with the Tampa Bay Rays' defeat of the New York Yankees left the AL wild-card race dead even with two games to play for both the Sox and Rays.
Beckett allowed two home runs, a solo shot to the Orioles' Matt Wieters in the second inning and an inside-the-park home run to Robert Andino in the sixth.
It just wasn't his night -- again.
"We've got to win games and that's not going to happen when your starting pitcher gives up six runs," Beckett said. "I couldn't make pitches when I needed to."
Baltimore had just taken a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth when Beckett allowed the two-out homer to Andino that sealed the deal for the Orioles.
Beckett knew Andino hit the ball pretty well, but the pitcher also figured that if anyone would be able to track it down, it was Jacoby Ellsbury. But as soon as the ball hit Ellsbury's glove, he slammed full speed into the center-field wall and he couldn't hold on, allowing Andino to circle the bases.
Ellsbury remained on the ground for a moment because he had the wind knocked out of him.
"That was a great effort," Beckett said. "As a pitcher you always appreciate that effort."
The effort by Boston's starting pitching has been anything but great this month, and when asked about Beckett and Lester specifically, Francona said at this point he's not concerned about what happened last week.
"I didn't even think about his last start," Francona said. "It doesn't matter, and when you go into a start, we rely on Beckett so much and whatever happened last week is inconsequential."
Even Beckett's numbers against the Orioles -- 7.03 ERA in 18 starts -- didn't shake Francona's confidence.
Beckett's regular catcher, Jason Varitek, was originally penciled into the lineup but was scratched just before game time due to a sore right knee he suffered when he was hit by a pitch Sunday night in New York.
Beckett said there were no issues while working with Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"I thought they did a really good job," Francona said. "Beckett knew going in that there was a chance that could happen."
While the focus this month has been on the pitching, Boston's position players weren't about to place the blame on Beckett.
"It's a team game and we didn't score enough runs," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We'll come out tomorrow and play as hard as we can, that's all we can do.
"Tonight we left a lot of guys on and didn't get that big hit, and they did," Pedroia added. "If you don't pitch and play good defense, you don't win. We've got to do all three at the same time. If we do all three at the same time, we're a great team. If we don't, we're not good."
With only two games remaining in a regular season on the brink of disaster, the Red Sox turn to Erik Bedard and Jon Lester as they try to hold on to a postseason berth.
"We've got a lot of faith and this is what it comes down to with these two guys," Varitek said.
Fellow Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz, who continues to rehab from a back injury and hasn't pitched since June, believes Bedard and Lester can stop the bleeding.
"I feel no different now or when we were the best team in baseball," Buchholz said. "The ball's not really rolling our way right now and there are a lot of things in the games that are happening that are not necessarily anybody's fault. That's just the way it is sometimes. We've got a race on our hands the last two games and everybody's mindset should be on [Tuesday's] game and then go on to the next one."
Francona said Monday afternoon that the only way Buchholz would pitch on Wednesday would be if the game meant nothing. If the season depends on it, Buchholz said he could be in there for at least one inning if absolutely needed. Buchholz pitched one inning in an instructional league game in Fort Myers, Fla., on Monday
"That's up to them," Buchholz said. "My body felt good today and all my pitches are working like they normally would."
After Monday's loss, a Red Sox staffer was walking around the clubhouse with a T-shirt that read: "Figure it out."
If Bedard and Lester can't do that, the season figures to be over.
"I've got a lot of faith," Beckett said. "I've been with Lester for a long time and I don't think there's anybody I would rather have out there. Erik's done a good job since he's come over here, but has had tough luck and if we played some balls differently then he goes longer in his last outing."
Monday could very well have been Beckett's last outing of the 2011 season.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.