What are Red Sox made of?

It was just before Game 6 of the 2004 AL Championship Series when Joe Torre stood in front of his players and asked if they had another gear. It wasn’t a challenge as much as a question.

Torre was never wired for confrontation. He didn’t try to copy Al Pacino’s halftime speech in “Any Given Sunday.” No anger, no shouting, nothing the tabloids could sink their headline-teeth into.

Still, Torre needed to know if the Yankees were tough enough to avoid blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Red Sox. It was a conversation he wouldn’t have needed to have with Paul O’Neill or Tino Martinez or David Cone five years earlier. But now Torre needed an answer from Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown.

History tells us what the response was — losing Games 6 and 7 not only finished off the greatest collapse in postseason history, it set in motion the end of the Torre era, which became official after 2007.

Today, Terry Francona finds himself in a similar predicament. The Sox are on a fast, downward spiral in the AL East, on the verge of being caught by the Rays and ousted from the wild-card berth. This meltdown might’ve been unthinkable in the prime of the Manny-Papi-Pedro era, but this is a new day at Fenway.

The team belongs to Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury (and Kevin Youkilis when he’s healthy). Francona has a million injuries to worry about, starting with Josh Beckett and Youkilis. But beyond knowing if the Sox are healthy enough to hold off Tampa Bay, the better question is whether they’re fierce enough.

Is there a starter other than Beckett capable of a shutdown performance in September? A reliever who can be counted on for swings and misses? Any single hitter who makes pitchers uncomfortable in the late innings the way Manny once did?

Lately, the answer is no. Most of the run-producing metrics (OPS, slugging percentage, batting average) are the lowest they have been since April, when the Sox opened the season by losing 10 of 12 games. Not having Youkilis in the lineup obviously has hurt, but Red Sox fans shouldn’t assume his return will instantly change the offensive profile.

Youkilis is a patient hitter in a lineup that likes to wear down opposing hurlers. The Sox lead the majors in pitches per plate appearance (3.96) — they score runs by waiting for mistakes. But lately, the Sox have been in deep, early deficits, which puts enormous pressure on the hitters to hurry and do something.

In other words, Francona will be powerless to stop the collapse unless Jon Lester and John Lackey can both deliver six to seven strong innings the next time through the rotation.

Theo Epstein admitted as much when he told WEEI, “A little bit of everything has contributed to (the slump). It’s not just one thing.” The GM went on to say, “if we can’t right the ship … if we can’t do what we need to do, we probably don’t deserve to get into the postseason."

The beauty of this drama is knowing the resolution is already at hand. The Sox begin a make-or-break homestand Tuesday night against the Blue Jays, and host the Rays in a four-game series starting Thursday.

There are still plenty of reasons to believe the Sox will prevail, not the least of which is seven games Tampa Bay still has remaining with the Yankees. Even before that, it’s hard to imagine the Rays continuing to crush the Sox, who are 42-29 at Fenway this year. Among American League teams, only the Yankees have fewer losses at home.

But to even manage a split would require the Sox to recalibrate, reassess and decide who they are. Is this the team that was good enough to beat the Yankees 10 of the first 12 head-to-head meetings this year? Or have they become so unnerved that even Ortiz, a veteran of the AL East wars, says it’s time for “panic?”

Those are the questions Francona will be asking. But he knows late-season introspection comes with a risk. Like Torre in 2004, what a manager learns isn’t always pleasant.

Mets quashed by MLB, but why?

Torre did himself no favors by allowing himself to be out in front of 9/11 hat-gate, refusing to let the Mets wear NYPD-FDNY caps on Sunday.

Clearly, the decision wasn’t Torre’s, but the commissioner’s office was clever enough to make Torre the fall guy. He is, after all, a New Yorker and was better positioned than Bud Selig to absorb the slings and arrows.

Of course, it was shortsighted and foolish to deny the Mets their show of respect for the cops and firemen.

The fact that MLB went as far as to confiscate the caps only aggravates the insult. But why did the Mets back down? Why didn’t they simply decide, as one, to defy Selig — call his bluff about the alleged fine that was hanging over the organization’s head?

There’ve been conflicting reports as to whether the Mets would’ve been punished, financially or otherwise. Torre said on MLB Radio on Monday that no such fine had ever been mentioned. If so, the Mets had no valid reason to comply with the edict.

MLB insisted that enforcing the one-cap-for-all on 9/11 was to maintain a sense of uniformity. Nonsense, as Ken Davidoff pointed out in Newsday today. Doesn’t baseball allow teams to wear throwback uniforms from time to time? Then why not let the Mets wear a throwback cap to 2001 and future anniversaries?

Additionally, if Selig was sincere about honoring those who died in the terrorist attacks, not only would he have granted the Mets a waiver on the caps, he would’ve seen to it that both New York teams played at home on Sunday. It’s not like MLB’s schedule-makers didn’t have time to work on the logistics. Having the Yankees and Mets at home would’ve been the right thing to do.

Are there any moves left to be made? Realistically, no. MLB had its chance, so did the Mets. Both sides failed. Unless, of course, the Mets want to wait until Opening Day 2012, or some other notable day on the calendar, and then take the field with those NYPD-FDNY caps. Let’s see Selig try to stop them again.