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Reeling Red Sox in a surprise fight to make the playoffs and more

The Red Sox were rightly considered a winner on deadline day for acquiring big-time hitter Victor Martinez, who has continued to thrive since leaving Cleveland for Boston. But now, a couple weeks later, with the Red Sox still struggling, it looks like they could have used even more help.

For the first time in nearly four months, the most successful team this decade isn't in a playoff position to start the day. After losing two out of three games to the upstart Rangers in Texas this weekend, Boston is in unfamiliar territory -- a half-game out of the wild card.

The Red Sox's recent trouble also may have left them wondering what might have been. Boston made major bids for superstar pitchers Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez plus big-time slugger Adrian Gonzalez in the days and hours leading up to the trade deadline, and even made a play to acquire star pitcher Cliff Lee in a package deal with Martinez before the Indians correctly realized they'd do better by separating their two stars.

But since that deadline whirlwind, there have been few highlights for the Red Sox. Boston is 6-9 this month and 12-17 since the All-Star break, and is now in a fight to make the playoffs. The rival Yankees are too far in first (7 1/2 games) to be a concern. The Rangers are the real competition now, and Texas' 7-2 record against the Red Sox gives them additional reason to doubt themselves.

Boston looks as vulnerable today as at any point since 2006.

The Red Sox aren't hitting in the clutch lately (they were 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position the last two games in Texas), or hitting very much at all. Before the All-Star break the Red Sox were hitting .281 with runners in scoring position (third-best in the AL). But since the break, they're hitting .233 (13th in the AL). Not only that, but their rotation -- once considered the deepest in baseball -- looks awfully thin now beyond stars Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.

"The second half has been a struggle for us," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said by phone Sunday night. "The only solace we can take is that we've played as poorly as we possibly can and still have a chance to get ourselves into October. We have to stabilize the back end of our rotation and hit better with runners in scoring position to do it, however."

They should still have the pieces to do it, even if David Ortiz looks much older than 33, and injuries to Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka have them relying for now on unproven starters Clay Buchholz and Junichi Tazawa, not to mention a sliding Brad Penny, who's won only once in his past 10 starts. Buchholz is a vaunted prospect, but after a brilliant year in Pawtucket he's struggled with Boston (1-3 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.79 WHIP). Tazawa is being hit even harder; he gave up a game-winning home run to Alex Rodriguez in his debut and after two starts has a 1.97 WHIP.

The Red Sox have a deep system, which allowed them to acquire Martinez and try hard for Halladay, Hernandez and Gonzalez. But the new reliance on kids makes them no different than the Rangers, except that the Rangers' kids are outperforming Boston's kids (and everyone else's) right now.

The Red Sox's rotation is a particular concern, but their hitting needs help, too. The lineup that produced the third-most runs in the first half, behind only the division rival Yankees and Rays, is tied for 16th since the break.

It's no wonder that Boston made bold plays for superstars Halladay, Hernandez and Gonzalez. The Red Sox probably knew there could be trouble ahead.

Boston is thought to have offered a five-prospect package of Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and a position player for Halladay, and even more than that for that Hernandez, whose value is higher because he isn't eligible for free agency until after 2011, a year later than Halladay. Comparable packages with more position players were dangled for Gonzalez, but Epstein, knowing Padres GM and past mentor Kevin Towers well, moved on fairly quickly when he could sense they weren't going to reach a deal.

The offer for Halladay was plenty strong, though Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi made clear from the start that the Red Sox and Yankees would have to pay a premium to land Halladay, telling both AL East teams that he'd have to have his "doors blown off." Red Sox people were told at one point that they gave the best offer.

It turns out the Red Sox were wise to disregard their quick start (they were 20 games over at the break), realize they needed help and go into deadline day hoping to land a big pitcher and big hitter. And they gave what appears to be a valiant shot. But Epstein, who's rarely received criticism in a success-filled career that includes two World Series titles, has heard the knock that he got distracted or derailed for spending so much time on unattainable players like Halladay, Hernandez and Gonzalez. One of Epstein's colleagues called that accusation "absurd." (Epstein declined comment.)

Their multiple pursuits at midyear still didn't prevent them from landing Martinez, a worthy second choice to Gonzalez who may actually be a better fit for them because of his versatility. Martinez, incidentally, is doing slightly better with Boston (he's hitting .311 and slugging .508 with the Red Sox, compared to .284 and .464 with the Indians).

The Red Sox shot high this winter, as well, trying hard to land Mark Teixeira, and that was their real loss. Epstein identified Teixeira as the perfect fit for them as a switch-hitting slugger with a great glove who's still only 28. But Boston stopped at $170 million, $10 million short of the rival Yankees' winning bid, in what looks like a mistake today. That wasn't Epstein's call, of course, and there are others who suggest he believed so strongly in Teixeira he would have liked to have gone higher. (Epstein declined to relive that failed pursuit.)

When Teixeira went to the Yankees, Boston tried to spread some money around. But there was no good chance to target $170 mil elsewhere and they wound up instead spending close to the $10 million difference, taking relative flyers on the Cooperstown-bound John Smoltz, Penny plus New England native Rocco Baldelli. Smoltz was a disappointment, Penny (7-7, 5.22) is leaning that way and Baldelli continues to have issues that limit his playing time. Plan B really was a $160 million in savings from Teixeira. That gave Boston plenty of room to operate, explaining their frenzy of deadline activity.

A mega deal for Halladay or Hernandez could have given them an unbeatable trio at the top of the rotation and sparked the franchise. It was worth trying for them. But now, after none of those big deals worked, the Red Sox are in a real fight for October.

Nationals president Stan Kasten's acknowledgement over the weekend that Washington may not sign ballyhooed No. 1 draft choice Stephen Strasburg should be taken seriously. This is not a baseless threat. He wouldn't be saying this aloud if he doesn't believe there's a real chance they'll fail to sign Strasburg.

The Nationals say they have offered a record bonus at or north of $12 million (the record is $10.5 million for Mark Prior in 2001), according to sources. But there's no evidence the sides are close. Strasburg's camp is believed to see him as having a $50 million value.

As a free agent, Strasburg would be worth $50 million or more. But there's a strong feeling in management circles that players need to prove themselves at the big-league level before getting the really big bucks, and Kasten isn't the type to change that belief. The Nats failed to sign their 2008 first-round pick, Aaron Crow (though their second first-rounder this year, Stanford relief pitcher Drew Storen, was quickly inked and recently promoted to Double-A Harrisburg).

While the Nats are offering a contract above Prior's record deal, Strasburg's agent Scott Boras is said to be using Matsuzaka's $52 million bonus as the baseline. That doesn't mean they wouldn't come off that number. But it likely means they don't believe $12 million is a fair number. Or even a close number. Strasburg's people believe he is worth several times that and shouldn't have to sign for what they believe is a fraction of his true value. They also don't see any reason to hurry to get Strasburg onto a mound after he threw 109 innings for San Diego State.

Of course, it's Strasburg's call in the end. And it takes a rare amateur player to turn down a seven-figure offer (or in this case, an eight-figure offer).

So far, though, there has been little indication of any progress at all in the Strasburg talks, the most anticipated in years, with the midnight Monday deadline looming. Of course, these big-ticket amateur signing almost always go right down to the deadline. The vast majority of first-round picks are expected to sign on deadline day Monday, but it doesn't look great for a Strasburg deal now.

Some are pooh-poohing Kasten's assessment. But there is every reason to believe there's real concern that a deal will get done here.

• Smoltz could be released today. It's tough to trade a pitcher with an 8.32 ERA and plenty of roster bonuses, even a Hall of Fame player. The Dodgers, Cardinals, Marlins and Rangers are among teams said to have some interest in him. One scout said he'd be "better off going to the National League."

• The Brewers offered nothing beyond taking the $2.5 million remaining on Doug Davis' contract after claiming him (that's the obligation of the claim), so the Diamondbacks kept Davis.

• Baseball people still believe the Nats' GM job is going to come down to acting GM Mike Rizzo, Boston's Jed Hoyer and Arizona's Jerry DiPoto.

• There still appears a decent chance Toronto will make a change at general manager. While Ricciardi kick-started the rebuilding process by unloading the contract of Alex Rios and all but $4 million of Scott Rolen, his bosses are not thrilled with how the Halladay sale was handled. Acting president Paul Beeston told murraychass.com he supports Ricciardi. But there's no guarantee Beeston will be there next year. And as one competing exec said, "No one gets to rebuild twice without making the playoffs once."

• The reason the Rangers gave up on Vicente Padilla is not because he was pitching poorly but because they view him as a bad teammate.

• Meanwhile, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is working wonders with the rotation, especially Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter.

• Hard to believe the Reds -- who play in hitter friendly Great America Ballpark -- have the lowest OPS (.694) in baseball. Yes, even lower than that of the Giants.

Derek Jeter passed Luis Aparicio to become the all-time hits leader at shortstop. He now has 2,675 hits as a shortstop plus another 13 as a DH. The way he looks today, Jeter probably has at least another 1,000 hits left in him.

• Congrats to baseball aficionado and twitter friend @Alyssa_Milano, who married some lucky stiff yesterday. Maybe her honeymoon will give me a chance to catch her in number of followers. I have 16,000, she has hundreds of thousands of followers. You can help me catch up by going to: http://twitter.com/SI_JonHeyman.

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