Red Sox manager Terry Francona is just about out of answers and now his team's wild-card lead is just about gone. Before Saturday's 9-1 loss to the Yankees in the Bronx, Francona took suggestions from his players and coaches about how to rearrange his lineup. Like almost everything else Francona has tried this month, it didn't work. Boston matched New York's hit total of nine but got blasted in the runs department as the one decision Francona didn't have any difficulty making -- giving Jon Lester the ball at the start of the game -- also blew up on him.
The Red Sox desperately needed a quality outing from Lester, not only to help stop their stunning slide but also to preemptively give a boost to their bullpen with Sunday's doubleheader (weather permitting) looming. Instead, Lester, who had been one of only two reliable starters the team could count on in recent weeks, gave up eight runs and didn't make it out of the third inning. Boston has not received a quality start in its past seven games, and in its past six games, its starters have combined to allow 42 hits and 38 runs in just 26 2/3 innings while posting a 10.13 ERA. Even Josh Beckett got hammered for six runs by the Orioles last Wednesday, meaning Boston's two best pitchers have allowed 14 earned runs in their past two games.
With its starting staff resembling that of a slow-pitch softball team and even its best pitchers getting shelled, the Red Sox have nowhere left to turn. No team has ever had a nine-game advantage for a playoff spot in September and missed the postseason, but if Boston is swept in the Bronx on Sunday -- hardly an impossibility given their 5-17 record to date this month -- and the Rays win, that entire lead will have evaporated. To prevent that, Francona will start Tim Wakefield and John Lackey. Wakefield has won just once of his past 10 starts and In Lackey's most recent outing, against the Orioles last Monday, he couldn't even pick up the win in a game in which his team scored 18 runs, failing to go the requisite five innings needed for the win.
Francona can seek all the lineup advice he wants over the next four days. Unless his team's starting pitching improves dramatically, the manager that presided over the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history will have guided his team through the biggest regular-season collapse in baseball history.
Despite their struggles, the Red Sox have actually been inching toward clinching the wild-card berth because the Rays can't beat anyone except Boston. In fact, the Red Sox's magic number to clinch the AL's last playoff spot was reduced to four because the Yankees and Blue Jays were beating the Rays four times in four days. Saturday night it was Tampa Bay's turn to get some good fortune, as the Rays beat Toronto 6-2 despite seeing starting pitcher Jeff Niemann knocked out after just one inning. No team in baseball has received more innings from its starting pitchers than Tampa Bay, but with Niemann gone after facing just seven hitters and giving up two runs, it was the bullpen that saved the Rays. Alex Torres threw the first five of what became eight scoreless innings of four-hit ball by a quartet of Tampa relievers.
That stellar effort might have been wasted had the Blue Jays not embarrassed themselves in the field to hand Tampa Bay a much-needed win. In the first inning alone, first baseman David Cooper dropped a foul pop from B.J. Upton, who then singled and came around to score when shortstop Mike McCoy made a throwing error with two outs that also allowed Ben Zobrist to get to second. Thus the inning stayed alive for Johnny Damon, whose routine pop to short center field fell in among three Toronto defenders, none of whom called for the ball and allowed the tying run to score.
In the eighth inning, another error from McCoy helped prolong the inning long enough for Damon to lace a three-run homer to right off Ricky Romero that put the game away and moved Tampa Bay to just 1½ games out of the wild-card race, the closest they've been to a playoff spot in the second half.
Those extra outs were exactly what the Rays needed. Aside from an out-of-nowhere 15-run outburst against the Yankees' B-team on Thursday, Tampa Bay had scored just five runs in its previous four games. On Saturday, Romero allowed only one earned run but his defense cost him five more.
The Rays weren't the only team to benefit from some ugly baseball on Saturday. In St. Louis, the Cardinals won a game in which they were down to their final strike twice because Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol walked three men in the ninth inning and unleashed a wild pitch that allowed the winning run to score in a 2-1 loss to the Cards.
How huge was that gift from Marmol? A loss would have lowered Atlanta's magic number to clinch the wild card to 2. Instead, on Sunday, Edwin Jackson will start the Cardinals' home finale (could it be Albert Pujols' last game at Busch Stadium in a Cardinals' uniform?) before they head to Houston for three games with the Astros, owners of the worst record in baseball. Meanwhile, after a winnable series finale in Washington against Ross Detwiler and the Nationals, the Braves will head home to face the Phillies. Forget the eight-game losing streak the Phillies are suddenly saddled with and focus on the fact that Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will be starting the final three games of the regular season, making Sunday's game a must-win for the Braves.
The Giants' 15-2 loss to the Diamondbacks on Saturday night assured baseball of its first postseason since 2007 without the reigning World Series champs. Just as last year's title shined a well deserved light on the quality of San Francisco's starting rotation, this year's failure to return to the postseason should do the same to the team's anemic offense. With a pitching staff that allowed the fewest hits and second fewest runs while notching the second-most strikeouts in the league, the Giants could only muster 84 wins, thanks to an offense that ranked last in the league in runs scored and OPS and next-to-last in batting average.
San Francisco can -- and should -- still be a perennial contender in the NL West, but it must address the offensive problems that have plagued it for years now. Getting catcher Buster Posey back healthy will be a start, but he alone can't save an offense that has only three players with double-figure home run totals and only one with more than 14.
The division races may have been decided already, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of variables left to decide before the playoff matchups can be set. Here are the relevant magic/tragic numbers still worth watching around the majors:
• Red Sox: Four to clinch AL wild card
• Rays: Four to be eliminated in AL wild card
• Angels: Three to be eliminated in AL wild card
• Braves: Three to clinch NL wild card
• Cardinals: Three to be eliminated in NL wild card
• Yankees: One to clinch homefield advantage throughout AL playoffs
• Rangers: Four to clinch No. 2 seed -- and thus homefield in the division series -- in the AL
• Brewers: Four to clinch No. 2 seed and homefield in division series in the NL
As if the debate surrounding Justin Verlander's MVP chances wasn't interesting enough, it will be especially intriguing to see if voters who might have otherwise been swayed by his becoming just the fourth pitcher in the era of the five-man rotation to win 25 games will suddenly downgrade his candidacy because he'll finish with 24 wins. Verlander failed to get No. 25 on Saturday and though he's a lock for the AL Cy Young award, the MVP race remains too close to call. With Verlander done for the regular season, the Yankees' Curtis Granderson, the Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury and the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, who hit his 43rd homer on Saturday, have four days to state their cases for the award.
Lastly, Matt Kemp's pursuit of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 has gone mostly under the radar, and he may have seen that pursuit come to an end on Saturday. Kemp enters play on Sunday leading the National League in RBIs, tied for first in home runs and third in batting average, but he is now six points behind Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, who went 2-for-3 in Milwaukee's win and is now at .331 whle Kemp (1-for-4 in a loss to the Padres) is now at .325. With four games left for the Brewers and five for the Dodgers, let's assume both Braun and Kemp play each of their respective club's remaining games. They average roughly 3.7 at-bats per game, which would translate (rounding up) to 16 more at-bats for Braun and 19 for Kemp. If Braun were to go a modest 4-for-16, he'd finish the year at .3286. If Kemp went 8-for-19, he'd finish at .3284. Which is to say, Kemp's Triple Crown chances aren't nearly as good as you might think.