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Dogged by problems, they're lacking bite

SEATTLE -- These are the dog days and your beloved Red Sox are playing like the Boston Bowsers.

The last time the Sox lost 17 games in a month, they fired Jimy Williams in mid-month and replaced him with Nutty Professor Joe Kerrigan. The last time they lost 18 games in August, they finished in the basement and were managed by Daddy Butch Hobson.

Today is Aug. 28 and the reeling Red Sox -- beaten, 6-3, at Safeco Field yesterday -- are 8-18 for the month. They still have four more games before September, three in the home of the West division-leading Oakland A's. If the Sox are swept in Oakland, as they were in Seattle, it will be the most Boston losses in one month since Ralph Houk managed the Haywood Sullivan All-Stars in 1985.

And what is this doing to Terry Francona, the manager of the 2006 Sox? He was coughing up blood and spitting it into a towel while he answered questions after yesterday's loss.

``I might have OD'd on my blood thinners," explained the beleaguered manager. ``I think I took too much."

Not even his trainwreck years in the corner office at the Vet could have prepared Francona for what has happened to his Red Sox this month. Filling out his lineup card has become more difficult than organic chemistry. The Sox-Held-Hostage-By-Manny-Tour takes a toll on everyone.

This is not to suggest that Manny Ramírez is faking, but his curious on-again, off-again availability -- coupled with the increasingly frequent necessity to remove him from games -- gives the manager fits and is taking the team down.

Here's how Francona starts his day when he gets to the ballpark: First he has to find out if Manny is in or out (wounded-knee Manny is 0 for 6 in the first six games of this trip with two starts and one pinch-hitting appearance). Then he sees if he has a healthy catcher who is not named Javy Lopez. Then he asks Mark Loretta if he can play first and Kevin Youkilis if he can play left. Then he pencils Dwayne Hosey, errr, Coco Crisp, into the leadoff spot and works his way south to No. 9. It's pretty tough since Jason Varitek, Alex Gonzalez, and Trot Nixon are on the disabled list, Wily Mo Peña has a sore left wrist, and Doug Mirabelli has a sore left ankle.

When the lineup's finished, Francona talks with pitching coach Dave Wallace to see who's available in the bullpen and who can start the next day. The bullpen situation is ever-dicey. Mike Timlin has morphed into Steve Crawford, Keith Foulke is always hurt, and the others besides Jonathan Papelbon are either not ready or over the hill.

It's a Bechtel Bullpen: no safe bridge to Papelbon.

Starters? Kyle Snyder got the ball yesterday and tonight it'll be rookie lefty Kason Gabbard. Tim Wakefield and Matt Clement are on the disabled list, Josh Beckett has a cut on his finger, Bronson Arroyo is in Cincinnati, and Jon Lester was sent home yesterday because his back hurts in the aftermath of a car accident last week on Storrow Drive. Reminds me of the 1970s when Reggie Cleveland and Rogelio Moret both got into crashes and Bill Lee said, ``We don't need a pitching coach, we need driver's ed."

Boston's Manny-less offense managed only two hits in a game started by the immortal Cha Seung Baek -- who was making just his second start of the season. Defensively, the Sox looked like what they are -- a team playing with many people out of position. Lopez made a ridiculous throwing error and Youkilis lost a ball in the sun in left.

``That's my fault," said Francona, when asked about the Youkilis gaffe. ``That's me. I'm just trying to get as much offense as we can. I don't want to feel helpless. I'm responsible for this. I've got to try to make it work regardless of how beat-up we are."

Sick of being asked about mysterious, mute Manny, the manager said, ``If a guy says he can't play, I'm not going to make him play. Go ask him. He said he can't [expletive] play. We were hoping a couple of days off would be enough. Where it stands now, I don't know."

``[Francona's] hands are tied," reasoned veteran Mike Lowell, who hit a home run. ``What can you do? Manny says he's hurt. You can't run him out there. I still think we can win games, but we're not playing well right now."

``What can you do? What can I do?" added David Ortiz, who hit No. 47. ``There's nothing much to say about it. You see what's going on. Hopefully, things will change. Otherwise we'll be watching the playoffs from home."

Plenty of mathematical possibilities exist, but the Darkness In August has pretty much taken the Sox out of the playoff picture. With 32 games to play the Franconamen trail the Yankees by 6 1/2 games, and are 5 1/2 behind the Twins (and five behind the White Sox) in the quest for the wild card.

``We just have to keep believing when it's not very easy to believe," said Francona.

Still wondering why Theo Epstein never signed his contract? The young GM was in Seattle with his free-falling team over the weekend, and who could blame him if he took a cue from those Southwest Airlines commercials that feature an embarrassing moment followed by the question, ``Want to get away?"

Oakland tonight. Day 8 of the Sox Held Hostage By Manny Tour.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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