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Closing Time: Red Sox’ September swoon continues as Rays finish sweep

09.11.11 at 5:09 pm ET
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It was one thing for the rest of the Red Sox rotation to fall short. At this point, expectations were already measured for the likes of John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland.

But Jon Lester was another matter. He is the rock of the Red Sox rotation, and at a time when the rest of the team had been sagging, the left-hander had been willing to shoulder the load to give the Sox at least one day out of five when they would feature reliable starting pitching. He had gone five straight starts in which he’d allowed no more than one earned run, tied for the longest such run by a Sox left-hander since at least 1919.

Will the Red Sox -- who are up 3 1/2 games over the Rays in the wild card after Sunday's loss -- make the playoffs?

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But on Sunday, that changed. In the course of a 43-pitch first inning, the Rays pushed three runs across the plate. They would tack on one more against Lester, who lasted just four innings, before continuing to do damage against the Boston bullpen in an eventual 9-1 smackdown.

And so, the Red Sox lost their buoy. The Rays and James Shields concluded their three-game sweep over the Sox, and suddenly the Sox’ safe passage into the postseason seemed dramatically imperiled.

On Aug. 7, the Rays were 11 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, and 10 games behind the Yankees in the wild card standings. Now, with their three-game sweep in Tampa Bay, the Rays have slashed their deficit to the Sox — now in the wild card race rather than the division standings — to 3½ games, punctuating a stretch in which the Rays have gone 22-10 and the Sox have stumbled to a 15-18 mark.

Tampa Bay outscored Boston by a combined 22-8 score, and the Sox enter Monday’s off-day having lost five straight, 7-of-8, and 9-of-11. They are in their most pronounced state of crisis since their 0-6 start in April.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

– The Rays worked over Lester as never before. For the first time in his career, on a day when he threw more than 100 pitches, the left-hander could not work his way into the fifth inning. Instead, he allowed four runs on eight hits in just four innings, striking out two and walking three. In the first inning alone, the three earned runs permitted by Lester matched his total yield from his previous 30 innings.

– Lester’s dreadful outing continued one of the worst turns of the rotation by the Red Sox in years. The team has now had five straight starts of no more than five innings, the longest such stretch by the team since Sept. 21-25, 2001, when Casey Fossum, Derek Lowe, Hideo Nomo, David Cone and Frank Castillo taxed the Sox bullpen.

– The Sox bullpen has also been abysmal, a trend that continued on Sunday when Michael Bowden loaded the bases in the fifth on two walks and a single before Matt Albers unloaded them by leaving a fastball over the middle of the plate that B.J. Upton crushed for a grand slam. Felix Doubront was later touched for a run on two hits and a walk in the seventh.

In the month of September, the Sox bullpen has had to pitch 49 innings, and the group has wilted under the workload. The team’s relievers have a combined 6.43 ERA this month.

Dustin Pedroia went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. Since Sept. 4, he is 3-for-34 (.088) with one walk and nine strikeouts.

Mike Aviles had a pair of hits, but he was picked off at first by Shields. It marked his second game with a glaring baserunning out of the road trip, along with a game-ending caught stealing in Tampa Bay. For a player who is currently the Sox’ top pinch-running option, the development is somewhat surprising.

(That said, Aviles is not alone in having been picked off by Shields, who has 12 pickoffs this year, the most by a right-handed pitcher since Charlie Hough had 14 in 1988. Opposing base stealers are 1-for-6 against Shields this year.)

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Marco Scutaro went 2-for-3 with a homer. He has five multi-hit games in his last seven contests, and went 13-for-27 during the Sox’ otherwise dismal seven-game road trip.

Read More: Dustin Pedroia, james shields, Jon Lester, marco scutaro
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