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Day at the races: Red Sox expand wild-card lead despite another loss

BOSTON -- The Red Sox have dropped 14 of their last 18, lost a series to the cellar-dwelling Orioles and left the field of their regular-season home finale to a smattering of boos ... yet gained a half-game in the wild-card standings thanks to a Yankees sweep of the Rays that clinched the American League East for New York, making for an awfully bittersweet day in Boston.

So even though the Angels joined the Rays at 2½ games behind the Red Sox for the wild card, the news for the National League wild-card-leading Braves is even worse -- their loss, combined with the Cardinals' win, cut the lead to 1½ games.

1. Boston's sinking ship.

The Red Sox entered September having gone 72-37 (.660) in their previous four months, but after losing 6-4 to the Orioles Wednesday night -- their third loss in four games to the division's last-place team -- the Sox are now 5-16 in September and haven't won consecutive games since sweeping a rain-soaked doubleheader with Oakland on Aug. 27.

"I've been here nine years," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "We've never collapsed that bad. Trust me, we've been through some tough times. But this is bad.

"... If you were to have asked me in August, if you would have told me that this would happen in September, I would have laughed at you."

As both a reflection on how poor Boston's pitching has been and how streaky its offense has been, consider this: in four of five wins this month, the Red Sox have scored 12 or more runs. Of their 122 runs this month, 66 have come in their five wins and only 56 have comes in their 16 losses, an average of 3.5 per game.

During that time, Red Sox starters are averaging less than five innings per outing, have a 6.82 ERA and have just three quality starts. "We're not playing good," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "It's obvious. When you don't win games -- what are we, 5-16 [in September] -- that's the sign of a [crappy] team."

"Anything left that we can try?" Pedroia said later. "We can play better. That's basically it."

Or hope the Rays continue their tailspin. In the last two weeks the Rays are 6-1 against the Red Sox and 1-5 against everyone else, failing to capitalize on Boston's struggles but suddenly becoming incapable of beating anyone else. Tampa Bay shot itself in the foot when it didn't win the matinee in which James Shields opposed Hector Noesi in a decidedly lopsided pitching matchup. In all, the Yankees used eight pitchers, none for more than 2 2/3 innings, and only one name, Mariano Rivera's, recognizable to the average fan.

2. The Braves' troubles are even worse.

While the shrinking of Boston's wild-card lead from nine games to 2½ games has garnered more attention -- because so much of that swing came head-to-head against their closest pursuer and because, well, they're the Red Sox -- the Braves have far more quietly been letting a postseason berth through their grasp, losing 13 of 20 games since Sept. 1, during which time the Cardinals have been an NL-best 13-5.

It's been a total system failure in Atlanta. In its 7-13 skid, only once had a starting pitcher recorded an out in the seventh inning -- Tim Hudson's eight-inning victory on Sat. -- before Derek Lowe went 6 1/3 innings on Wednesday night to make it 2-for-20. Injuries to Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, along with the subsequent reliance on several rookie replacements who are not stretched out for deeper outings, made a difference, but so too has been the recent inability of veterans Lowe and Hudson to spare the bullpen. Lowe has finished the seventh inning only three times in 32 starts this season.

The Braves' lineup, meanwhile, has batted just .243 with a .312 on-base percentage and only 3.4 runs per game in the last 20 games. One notable culprit has been catcher Brian McCann, who missed only 16 games with an oblique injury before returning in August. In this down stretch he's gone 11-for-62 (.177) with only one home run.

3. Yankees clinch playoff spot -- and then a division title.

In the first game of their doubleheader the Yankees clinched their 16th playoff berth in the last 17 years, and in the second game they added their 12th AL East title during that same time span.

Rivera told reporters in New York, "Nobody gave us a shot when we were in spring training." It seems hard to believe now, but there was some truth to that idea six months ago as the Yankees completed an offseason in which they publicly haggled on a contract with captain Derek Jeter, failed to sign Cliff Lee or any other proven commodity for the rotation and spent their most offseason money on a reliever the general manager said he didn't want, even going so far as to make that statement public during the player's introductory press conference.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox had landed Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and were touted as the obvious favorite in the East. But seemingly scrap-heap signings Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia exceeded expectations, as did rookie Ivan Nova; the less heralded acquisition, catcher Russell Martin, had a big season; and centerfielder Curtis Granderson carried the momentum from a strong final six weeks of 2010 into an MVP-caliber 2011.

There'll be plenty of time in the eight days before the ALDS to dissect whether the Yankees are built for a deep postseason run, but for a night it's worth reflecting on how far the unlikely underdogs -- relatively speaking for a club with more than $200 million in payroll -- have come.

4. The Cardinals' schedule and the Phillies' intentions could help decide the NL wild card.

As if it weren't enough that the Cardinals have won 12 of 14 games and 19 of 25, they also have a very favorable remaining schedule: one more home game with the Mets, then a three-game home series against the Cubs, followed by three games at the Astros. All three teams are well below .500, especially Chicago and Houston, and St. Louis is 8-4 against each so far this season.

The Braves, meanwhile, are off Thursday before traveling to Washington for three games this weekend and then finishing up at home against the Phillies. Atlanta is just 6-9 against its division rival, which has already clinched everything it can possibly clinch.

How the Phillies play the Braves -- in case they want to limit pitchers' innings or give players some rest in their final pre-playoff tune-up -- could make a difference.

Baseball rules prohibit two teams from the same division from playing in first round, so even though the Phillies have the league's best record, they wouldn't play the wild card in the NLDS if the Braves make it. Instead, they'd play the division winner with the worst record, which is currently the Diamondbacks by a game behind the Brewers; Philly is 3-3 against Arizona and 4-3 against Milwaukee. If the Cardinals overtake the Braves for the wild card, then the Phillies would play St. Louis, against whom Philadelphia is 3-6.

5. Just making the playoffs isn't good enough for Boston -- how and when matter too.

Momentum in baseball, it's been said, is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher. Therefore, the Red Sox have the urgency of not just winning enough games to make the playoffs but to do in a way to set up their postseason rotation. Boston more than most teams has a precipitous dropoff from its Nos. 1 and 2 starters to Nos. 3 and 4.

The hope the Red Sox cling to is that Josh Beckett and Jon Lester can start three times in a five-game series and four times in a seven-game series without pitching on short rest, empowering the Sox to potentially win a playoff series without ever needing their much-maligned back of the rotation.

But, should the Sox continue to falter, they may need Beckett and Lester to start next Tuesday and Wednesday in the season's final two regular-season games just to make the postseason. If so, because ALDS Games 1 and 2 are on Friday and Saturday, neither Beckett nor Lester would be able to start until Game 3 without pitching on short rest.

So while the Sox are clearly no playoff lock, they do remain the favorite to make the postseason, though at this rate they risk not staying very long.

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