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Faith in numbers, but not much else

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 21, 2011 11:40 AM

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During this September so cruel it almost seems scripted, each new ballgame -- every few innings, really -- provides new depths of disaster and despair for the 2011 Boston Red Sox. At this point, I'm not sure what rock-bottom is for this battered, hard-luck, and self-destructive team, though the definitive image of this collapse that will stick with most of us in retrospect will probably happen in the next few days, presuming the Rays stop prolonging the inevitable and finally surpass them in the wild-card race.

In the office pool, I have Carl Crawford tripping over third base and failing to score the tying run in the ninth inning of the last day of the season while Don and Jerry barely acknowledge the Aparicio-esque disaster because there's a visitor in the booth who requires extended on-air acknowledgment. But the Rays, they'll notice from afar. For their former teammate's season-long contributions to their eventual playoff berth, the Rays will covertly vote Crawford a playoff share.

Go ahead, just try to top that last paragraph on the bitterness scale. Of course, such sarcasm can be justified when the Kodak Carousel in our minds is already loaded with images of all the recent on-field atrocities one would expect from a team with a .250 winning percentage in a given month. There's Josh Reddick's Trot-trademarked rain dance on the routine fly ball . . . [click] . . . and Erik Bedard's 51-pitch meltdown in an inning from which he should have escaped . . . [click] . . . and a Toby Borland special from Daniel Bard, who had a12.15 ERA in seven September appearances before last night . . . [click] . . . and Jonathan Papelbon giving up a three-run double on a 3-2 count to Robert Andino, a recycled part with a career .638 OPS.

duffyfrankfinn.jpgAt least Papelbon was accountable in defeat. His comments in the postgame ("This is on me") were reminiscent of Dennis Eckersley's "I pitched horse[bleep] . . . the 'L' goes next to my name" comments during the Boston Massacre in '78 when he saw shortstop Frank Duffy, who made a crucial error, besieged by reporters after a loss. Behind all the flash, the Eck was a stand-up guy. So is Papelbon, and so is Bard for that matter.

The same can't be said of John Lackey, who is apparently as oblivious as he is disastrous. He has apparently missed all of the stories this week pointing out either that he's having the worst season of any Red Sox pitcher ever or that he's making the Yankees' oft-mocked signing of Carl Pavano look like a bargain by comparison, staring incredulously at Terry Francona as he came out to remove him during his 4.1-inning, 11-hit, 8-earned run gem against Baltimore Monday.

I blame Francona for very little of this meltdown -- you think he's given Kyle Weiland five starts out of the goodness of his heart? -- but I do wish he'd greeted Lackey this way: "What the [insert Bill Belichick's standard word of choice for Derrick Mason] are you staring at? Give me the damn ball and get off this mound."

While the stress of the circumstances are easily recognized in Francona's tired voice during the postgame interviews on NESN and his increasing candor about his players' failings (such as noting Reddick made a fundamentally poor play in reading the fly ball before he dropped it), he's doing his damnedest to keep the ship on course. Bringing in Papelbon in the eighth was the right move with an unfortunate result, and those who spent the past couple of weeks howling that he needs to be more aggressive should probably finds a new screeching point today.

I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't recognize where they are coming from, however, as misguided as some of the finger-pointing can be. This in-progress meltdown and what seems at the moment to be an inevitable outcome have made even me sound bitter -- no, I don't really believe the Rays will vote Crawford a playoff share -- and more sarcastic than usual, anyway. It's cathartic to gripe about it.

My only wish is that those who deserve the blame are the ones who get it, and that's where we go off the rails around here a bit. This slide isn't because the team lacks spark or fire. They don't need to bring in David Eckstein as a gritty, gutty inspiration, they don't need to pass Trot Nixon's old dirty hat around the clubhouse for luck, and they sure as hell don't need Francona to turn over the postgame spread in a phony show of fire. What they need is simple: Good pitching from their good pitchers, and enough timely hits to cover for those who aren't so good.

Real faith may be hard to find right now, but it's not that far out of reach. As Bob Ryan just popped by my corner to tell me in his inimitable, inarguable way, it's really all about the magic number. Yes, they lost last night, and it was excruciating. But so did Tampa, and another one can be crossed off the schedule. Seven games left, and the magic number is six. Sure, the concept of requiring and appreciating the Yankees' help -- I prefer, for the sake of my soul, to think of it as rooting against the Rays rather than for New York -- in whittling down that number is an uncomfortable one. But considering everything else going on around the Red Sox these days, it shouldn't feel that weird. Uncomfortable became the new normal weeks ago.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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