BoSox, Braves arms feeling the heat

The Red Sox are going to the playoffs.

Loyal readers will recognize that sentence. It appeared in my column last Wednesday morning.

Since then, the Red Sox are 0-5. The Rays are 4-0. And Boston’s lead in the American League wild-card standings has melted to 3 1/2 games.

Is it too soon to ask for a mulligan?

I’m kidding, of course. At least I think I’m kidding.

The Red Sox were widely viewed as baseball’s best team during the preseason — and midseason, for that matter. They are supposed to make the playoffs. And they probably will. But thanks to their September swoon, nothing is promised anymore.

Frankly, the same is true in the National League.

For months, the Atlanta Braves have been a veritable lock to finish a strong second place in the NL East and earn a wild-card berth. (Not for nothing, they were my preseason pick to win the World Series.) But these days, it seems that every game reveals a new area of concern for them.

On Labor Day, the Braves awoke with an 8 1/2-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card standings. Now it’s 4 1/2, after the Cardinals broomed them from Busch Stadium over the weekend.

Good thing the Braves played a makeup doubleheader against the out-of-contention Mets on Thursday; those are the only games Atlanta has won in the past week.

So, what in the name of Gene Mauch is going on with these should-be, would-be World Series contenders?

All together now: Pitching problems!

Yes, the Red Sox and Braves are exhibiting the No. 1 indicator of a September collapse — pitchers who are injured and/or weary. That’s not to say these teams are destined to fold. But they have developed the collective itchy throat that can be the forerunner to so many ills.

The reason for the tightening of each race is scarier for the leader than the dwindling size of the lead.

Consider the developments since the Red Sox arrived in Toronto last week:

• Ace starter Josh Beckett left his start against the Blue Jays because of a sprained right ankle. There is no word on when he will be ready to pitch in a game again. If Beckett doesn’t return until the end of Boston’s upcoming nine-game homestand — which is possible — then he may have only two starts left in his regular season.

• Erik Bedard, the injury-prone left-hander, wasn’t able to take his normal turn in the rotation because of lingering left-knee issues. Now he’s probably going to miss another start because of a strained latissimus dorsi muscle.

• Kevin Youkilis, the All-Star third baseman, was diagnosed with bursitis in his left hip and a sports hernia. He will try to play through the pain — but he’s actually been doing that already, with minimal success: Youkilis has a subpar .680 OPS since the All-Star break.

• Setup man Daniel Bard allowed five earned runs while taking the loss on Wednesday. He gave up another run (and lost) in Tampa Bay three days later. Bard now has surrendered earned runs in three of his past four games — which hadn’t happened since August of his rookie year. Bard ranks among the AL leaders with 63 appearances this year. Bobby Jenks, whose presence was supposed to ease Bard’s workload, has been a non-factor this season because of injuries.

So yes, the Red Sox are glad they don’t have a game on Monday.

But the day off can’t fix everything. Jon Lester started, expended way too many pitches, and lost on Sunday, meaning the designated stopper was unable to halt the losing streak. Manager Terry Francona’s probable pitchers for Tuesday and Wednesday are Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, respectively. Both have ERAs above 5.00.

Who’s after that? Who knows? Andrew Miller has permitted a .920 OPS since the All-Star break. Kyle Weiland started Saturday and didn’t record an out in the fifth inning. Alfredo Aceves is performing well as the long man but hasn’t started since June.

This is where the Red Sox need the injured Clay Buchholz – or even Daisuke Matsuzaka. But they aren’t available.

Until further notice, the Red Sox have one “sure thing” in their rotation. And he just lost.

By the way, did I mention the surging Rays have another chance to beat Boston head-to-head this weekend in a four-game series at Fenway Park? And according to STATS LLC, three teams in the wild-card era — the ’95 Angels, ’07 Mets and ’09 Tigers — blew even bigger leads with 16 games to play than Boston has right now?

At least the Red Sox are second in the majors in runs scored. The Braves can’t say anything of the sort.

Their output in their last 10 games: 1, 4, 0, 3, 2, 6, 5, 3, 3, 3. And you guessed it: The “6” and “5” came against the Mets.

Take away those two games, and the Braves are averaging 2.4 runs each day during the most crucial time of year. That’s the kind of offensive malpractice that is going to cost the Giants their championship belt.

One big reason for the Braves’ slide: All-Star catcher (and No. 3 hitter) Brian McCann is batting just .159 with five home runs since returning from the disabled list last month. Also:

• Dan Uggla has cooled since the end of his 33-game hitting streak, and the Braves still are waiting for the 2010 vintages of Martin Prado and Jason Heyward to return.

• Meanwhile, the starting rotation is limping to the finish. It’s questionable whether Tommy Hanson, who has a slight rotator-cuff tear in his throwing shoulder, will be ready in time to start another game during the regular season.

• Jair Jurrjens (bone bruise in his right knee) isn’t even that close.

• The Braves have a bounty of excellent young pitchers, but Plan A didn’t call for Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado to start consecutive games in the heat of a pennant race, as they did last week.

Is it possible that the weekend sweeps ratcheted up anxiety in Boston and Atlanta to levels beyond what the probabilities say they should be? Perhaps.

But Sept. 12 is an awful day to be scrambling for a starting pitcher. These teams have scores of outs to get before popping champagne corks. Who’s going to get them?