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With Red Sox, is this some sort of a choke?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 12, 2011 09:35 AM

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Whatever you do, do not blame the injuries. This current streak is entirely in line with who the Red Sox have been. On a handful of occasions this year, the Sox have fallen downright comatose, the most notable example coming in the first 12 games of the season.

Quite simply, the Sox have been susceptible to lapses all year long, from Opening Day to interleague play to today.

Presumably, their talent will come through now as it eventually did then, though the team’s latest snag raises concerns on multiple levels. Even if the Red Sox make the playoffs -- a scenario that is still likely, albeit in some doubt -- they may have to fight far more than they ever envisioned. Aside from a historic collapse, the worst-case scenario now would require the Red Sox to play meaningful games in the final series of the season, a reality that could thrust their pitching plans into a state of chaos.

Instead of having, say, Jon Lester or Josh Beckett lined up to face the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander in Game 1, the Sox could end up with John Lackey or Erik Bedard on the mound. Kind of changes the dynamic in such a series, doesn’t it? For all of suggestion that the Tigers are the worst of the four American League playoff teams and the preferred matchup in the first round, Detroit is now just one game behind the Red Sox and has the best pitcher on the planet.

This season was never about making the playoffs, folks. It was about winning a World Series. Even if the Sox qualify for the postseason, they are now tampering with their best chance at success.

"The last thing those guys need to see is [the manager and coaching staff] coming in here with our tail between our legs. That’s not going to help," manager Terry Francona told reporters after yesterday’s debacle against Tampa Bay. "We’ll come out and fight and hopefully we’ll play better Tuesday. If we don’t, we’ll try to play better Wednesday. I’ve felt like we’re going to play well, and when we don’t, we’re going to fix it."

Even then, the fix might not be immediate. In their next four games, the Red are lined up to pitch Tim Wakefield, Lackey, Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland. Combined this month, those four starters have allowed 29 runs in 29.1 innings, the large majority of damage coming from Lackey and Miller.

And then, of course, there is the matter of the offense, which has scored 66 runs in the last 13 games, a 5.1 average that is, at best, wildly deceiving. During that stretch, Boston’s only victories have come by scores of 12-7 and 14-0. Take away those two explosions and the total drops to 40 runs in 11 games, an average of 3.6. In that same stretch, Lackey (0-3), Miller (0-2) and the mighty Daniel Bard (0-2) all have lost at least as many games as the Red Sox have won, which is no easy trick.

Earth to the Red Sox: you haven’t won anything yet. A $180 million payroll alone doesn’t guarantee you anything. You opened this season playing as if the playoffs were a birthright and entitlement, and you’re doing the same thing now. Time to pull your heads out from between your rosin bags.

Naturally, there are those who will stress that the Sox are still in the driver’s seat, an indisputable rally as we enter the final two full weeks of the regular season. Part of the reason a big lead is so valuable in the final days of August is because you can have a stretch of play like this and still be in control. Of the Red Sox’ final 16 games, the next 10 are at home. They have six games left with the Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile, the Rays will play 11 of their final 17 against the Red Sox and Yankees; of the remaining six, only three are against Baltimore. The schedule is lined up in such a way that it would be seemingly impossible for the Red Sox to fail.

Of course, all of that assumes that the Red Sox actually win some games down the stretch, something that hardly seems like a given anymore. Nonetheless, the evidence supports them. As has been noted throughout the regular season, the Red Sox generally have responded to any stretches of ineptitude with spirited, dominating play. The Red Sox have had stretches of 13-2, 14-2 and 17-3 following some of their more uninspiring play this year, responses that cannot help but make one wonder if their problems rest almost exclusively between their ears.

Now, with 16 games to play, the Red Sox are all but officially in crisis mode again. If they want to be in peak condition for the start of the playoffs, they need to secure a playoff spot in the 10-12 days. Going much longer than that would threaten the Sox’ pitching plans for the postseason, something they have always maintained to be of the utmost importance amid their willingness to sacrifice the division title.

What they never expected, of course, was that they would have to fight for the wild card as a result.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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