Seeking a home remedy

Red Sox hope to cure slump in key stretch

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / July 6, 2004
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Yankees this, Yankees that.

Nomar this, Nomar that.

Francona this, Francona that.

For all the residual angst and finger-pointing after the belly flop in the Bronx, it's time to move on. The fact is, the Red Sox return to Fenway Park tonight trailing the Rangers by 3 games in the wild-card standings as they enter a 10-game gauntlet against three of their chief rivals for the postseason: the A's, Rangers, and Angels.

By the time the Sox emerge from the 10-game challenge July 18 in Anaheim, Calif., they should know far better if their vision of making the playoffs is a practical ambition or a pipe dream. They open a six-game homestand tonight against the A's and Rangers, then start the second half of the season with four games out west against the Angels.

The wild card appears all but certain to go to the Sox, A's, Rangers, Angels, White Sox, or Twins, unless the Devil Rays continue their surprising surge.

"This will be a good test for us," Kevin Millar said. "We just have to find a way to get on a little win streak and get some confidence going."

Wins and confidence have been hard to come by since the Sox began a 14-20 stretch May 27 that reached its nadir with a tumultuous 1-5 trip through New York and Atlanta. If the Sox fail to reverse course before they emerge from the shadow of Disneyland, look for general manager Theo Epstein to shake things up faster than the two-minute bobsled plunge down Disney's Matterhorn.

"Every [game] matters," said Curt Schilling. "We may be playing the teams that are in front of us for the wild card over the next 10 days, but we can't look two days ahead. Seriously, if we don't take care of the game in hand, it's not going to matter what series we're playing come August." The Sox led the American League East by 1 1/2 games when the A's embarrassed them, 15-2, May 27 at Fenway, triggering their slide. Other than the Yankees, the Sox had not played a team over .500 before they took two of three from the A's May 25-27. Since then, they have played all but eight of their 31 games against teams over .500 and have fared miserably.

"There's no alternative but to show up [tonight] and try a little harder and hustle a little more and work a little harder," manager Terry Francona said. "That's all we can do right now. We can talk about how frustrated we are, but we've got to play better, we've got to pitch better, we've got to manage better, we've got to coach better. We've got to do everything better."

Maybe returning home will help. The Sox are 25-14 at Fenway and have stumbled to an 18-23 mark on the road. They will lead with Tim Wakefield tonight against Barry Zito, with Wakefield coming off two respectable starts against the Twins and Yankees in which he allowed only one earned run over 14 innings.

"We play well at home," Millar said. "We just need to get back to square one and get a couple of wins."

The funk would be easier to shake if it were isolated to one or two players or one or two facets of the game. But the problems seem to change by the day. While Derek Lowe was almost singlehandedly responsible for the 10-4 spanking Sunday in Atlanta and played a major role in several other losses, the Sox have failed to win more than two straight games for nearly a month largely because of a nagging case of inconsistency. Either they have hit well and not pitched well or vice versa. Or they have thrown games away in the field. Or they have run into too many outs on the basepaths. "We're just not playing well enough," Schilling said. "There are just so many different things we're doing inconsistently that we're not going to string a streak of two wins together until we get better on both sides of the ball. We're going to have to put it together because there are a lot of good teams in the American League this year and, in my mind, we're playing in the division with the best team in the game right now. It's not going to get any easier."

The Sox altered Schilling's schedule so he will start the finale of the three-game series against the A's Thursday rather than the opener with the Rangers Friday. Schilling, who will replace Bronson Arroyo in facing Oakland's Rich Harden, will follow Pedro Martinez, who goes tomorrow against Mark Redman.

Since Lowe thew only 81 pitches Sunday, he could return Friday to open the series against the Rangers, who swept three games from the Sox May 1-2 in Texas. Wakefield and Arroyo most likely would work the final two games before the break, barring a trade for another starter.

The Sox will catch Oakland in the midst of a 6-13 stretch on the road, though the A's took two of three over the weekend in San Francisco and have won eight of their last 11 overall. The A's are missing third baseman Eric Chavez, righthander Tim Hudson, and reliever Arthur Rhodes because of injuries, but they arrive with the league's best ERA (3.94) and are coming off a month in which they led the majors in batting (.286).

But the Sox need to worry more about themselves than the A's.

"We just have to win, period," Alan Embree said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. We've gotten ourselves in a situation where we're playing below .500 and we're not a below-.500 club. We should be winning a lot more than we're losing. It's time to start doing it."

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