Red Sox losing cool, maybe berth

Carl Crawford said he hasn’t spoken with his former Tampa Bay Rays teammates lately. Why bother? He knows they are placing unbearable pressure on his wealthy employer, the Boston Red Sox.

And he knows why.

“They’re just real relaxed,” Crawford said. “They’re confident.”


Crawford uttered those words late Monday night, in a church-quiet Red Sox clubhouse after their 6-3 loss to the last-place Baltimore Orioles – a result that should have been more startling than it was.

Crawford didn’t stick around long enough to discuss his current team’s state of mind in any detail. But it’s obvious that Tampa Bay possesses what Boston does not – in more ways than one.

The Red Sox have spoken about the importance of playing relaxed … but they cannot do it.

They tell you that they are confident … but their empty gazes betray the words.

They claim they are in control … but now the Rays are, too.

Tampa Bay gained a share of the American League wild-card lead with Monday’s 5-2 victory over New York, and yet the burden of expectation belongs to Boston and Boston alone. It doesn’t sound fair. But it’s true. That’s what a 4-to-1 payroll ratio will do.

Baseball is indeed a mind game – but only to a point. If the sport were governed by day-to-day momentum, then the Red Sox, buoyed by their emotional Sunday night victory in New York, would have blown away Baltimore by a football score. They didn’t.

Josh Beckett, one of the finest big-game pitchers of his generation, was outperformed by a 25-year-old (Tommy Hunter) who was demoted to the bullpen and traded earlier this year.

“Can’t be (crappy) when your team needs you,” lamented Beckett, twice a World Series hero.

So now the Rays and Red Sox are in a dead heat – but it’s a tie in name only. No one who has watched these teams play recently – or pitch, to be more precise – would claim that they have an equivalent opportunity to win the wild card.

Monday night was like that moment in an overtime basketball game when, after two or three foul-outs, you realize there is no one left to guard the other team’s 7-footer. The scoreboard says everything is square, but the chance to win already came and went. That’s how any Red Sox realist is feeling right now.

Manager Terry Francona was able to offer a few witticisms before the game, but not afterward. At this point, even gallows humor would ring hollow.

“Not much to say,” Francona said. “We need to come out and win tomorrow (Tuesday). We’ve backed ourselves (up) about as far as we can go.”

The 162-game season has become a two-game season, and I really like the Rays’ chances.

They have Jeremy Hellickson, the potential Rookie of the Year, and David Price, the two-time All-Star, ready to face a Yankees team that is primarily concerned with resting and prepping for the postseason.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are entrusting Tuesday’s start – and their season, really – to Erik Bedard, an enigmatic and unreliable left-hander who has never before pitched in a game of this magnitude. He has one victory in the past three months. Of greater concern, he couldn’t complete the third inning in his last outing against the plucky Orioles.

On Wednesday, Francona must turn to suddenly inconsistent ace Jon Lester – on short rest. Lester has pitched on three days’ rest only once before. It didn’t turn out well. If anything, Lester might need more time between starts right now. His ERA this month is near 6.00.

And who might start a one-game playoff Thursday? That would be John Lackey.

Monday’s loss was like so many others in Boston’s 6-19 September: The starter didn’t pitch long enough and/or well enough, and the hitters displayed an abject inability to produce key hits.

Crawford, the $142 million man, continues to be as guilty as anyone. He stranded four runners on base Monday, one more game his talent wasn’t able to change.

In many ways, the game-turning moment was also the most poignant one. With two out in the sixth inning, infielder Robert Andino swatted a Beckett fastball to deep center. MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury, who was playing shallow, took off on a headlong sprint … arrived just in time … corralled the ball in his glove … but then coughed it up as his arm smacked into the wall, like an unsuspecting receiver dizzied by the free safety he never saw coming.

It became an inside-the-park home run – the first for an Oriole at Camden Yards.

“I knew it would be close,” Ellsbury said. “I was hoping I had maybe a little more room.”

At the beginning of this month, the Red Sox had plenty of room – a nine-game lead. Now it’s gone. Suddenly, the team that was supposed to win the World Series is running out of time, running out of pitching and running out of hope.