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Lost opportunities are haunting them

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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There are still bumps that have to get smoothed out.

After an excellent stretch in which the team won nine of 13 games against top teams such as the Tigers, Yankees, Twins, Phillies, and Rays, the Red Sox came home and lost two straight to the Royals. The pitching is not all the way back. Daisuke Matsuzaka walked eight Thursday and Tim Wakefield was bludgeoned for nine runs in a 12-5 loss last night. Where did the pitching go? What happened?

Wakefield used two words to describe his performance — disgusted and embarrassing. He’s a stand-up guy. Always has been. But the Royals pounded 20 hits against the Sox and on a night the Sox should have avoided using the bullpen, they needed Scott Atchison, Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Joe Nelson, and yes, utilityman Bill Hall to finish the game.

“I’m disappointed we had to dip into the bullpen,’’ Wakefield said. “I make it a point to go deep into the game and preserve the arms out there. I feel badly for the guys out there. It’s embarrassing.’’

We know the ins and outs of the knuckleball some 15 years into his Red Sox career and last night it hung up in the zone. Most fans were probably wondering why Terry Francona stayed with Wakefield for 3 2/3 innings. Well, it’s because the bullpen was gassed. None of the guys who pitched should have pitched. So everyone had to be stretched out far more than they should have. Wakefield is usually an innings-eater. He knew he needed to be that and he wasn’t. That’s the disappointment he felt, particularly on a night when he said he had good movement on the knuckleball in the bullpen and in the first inning. After that, it was flat.

You could see it slipping away. Wakefield had leads of 3-0, 3-2, 5-2, then in the fourth, he yielded seven runs, capped by a Yuniesky Betancourt grand slam that made it 9-5. And then all was lost.

Of course, at Fenway, and with five innings to play, it shouldn’t have been lost. Although the bullpen allowed three more runs over five innings, the Sox offense was shut out the final six innings. That shouldn’t happen at home. No lead should be safe for the opposition, but it seemed as if the Sox had no answers and could not come up with the big hit, even though they had runners in scoring position in the fourth and sixth innings, and had runners on in the eighth and ninth innings.

Nobody is naive enough to think quality starts can be produced every time out, but the Red Sox did it over nine starts. Even including Matsuzaka’s poor outing, the starters had thrown six or more innings in seven of the nine and went 7-2 with a 1.92 ERA. Matsuzaka and Wakefield are the fourth and fifth starters on a staff without Josh Beckett. But you can’t have two consecutive poor starts against a Royals team that was so bad they had to fire their manager.

And the Sox are home to boot.

This is the place where they are supposed to have 20-hit barrages, although the Royals are the top-hitting team in the majors with a .282 average.

We’ve gone through the reasons the Red Sox got off to a disappointing start and why they’ve been able to get back into the mix in the AL East. But these games at home vs. sub-.500 teams are great opportunities. You don’t get these back. These are the breaks in the schedule you must take advantage of.

After Kansas City, Oakland comes in, another team the Sox should dominate. What the Sox did in beating Philly and Tampa Bay 5 of 6 was great, but they have to beat the doormats, too. Whether it’s been a slight letdown, a few injuries here and there, the fact Jacoby Ellsbury is back on the DL, the Sox have to shake it off quickly.

At a time when there appears to be some cracks in the Rays’ juggernaut, where you’re seeing a Yankees team that hasn’t quite cranked it up, and where the Blue Jays keep hanging around with a mashing lineup, the Sox have to minimize the slumps and win series. With so much time left, that’s all the Sox have to do to be in the playoff mix in October. Given their poor start, it seems every time they go into a little dip, you wonder, could this be prolonged?

The Sox face Royals ace Zack Greinke tonight, and while they touched him up the first time they faced him in Kansas City April 10 for eight hits and four runs over 6 2/3 innings, Greinke, last year’s American League Cy Young winner, is capable of pitching a gem. Which is why the Sox have to crank up their pitching again.

With Clay Buchholz, 6-3 with a 3.07 ERA, opposing Greinke, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to stay in the game.

On these stretches at home against sub.-500 teams, you’ve got to be better than that.

It’s time for the bumps to smooth out.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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