The Boston Red Sox clinched a playoff berth over the weekend, but the AL East title is still up for grabs.
The Red Sox will try to add to their division lead on Tuesday when they open a two-game series against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park.
Boston (92-64) has lost six of its last nine, including two of three against the New York Yankees, to have its division lead over New York shrink to two games.
The Red Sox, who were as many as 14 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees in late May, close the season with a six-game homestand against Oakland and Minnesota. New York finishes with three-game road series against Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
Boston’s latest setback came on Sunday, when starting pitcher Tim Wakefield gave up four runs in five innings of a 5-4 loss to last-place Tampa Bay.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Wakefield said about his first defeat in 20 career games at Tropicana Field. “We’re in the postseason, but our main goal is try to win the division.”
The team’s struggles are partially due to a rash of injuries. Left fielder Manny Ramirez has missed 24 straight games with a strained muscle on his left side, and his return is still uncertain.
First baseman Kevin Youkilis, meanwhile, has been sidelined the last seven games due to a bruised right wrist. Ramirez and Youkilis were scheduled to take batting practice during the team’s off day Monday, but neither is expected to start Tuesday.
“The timing of some of these guys going down isn’t good, but it’s not tragic, because it’s not the playoffs,” manager Terry Francona told the Red Sox’s official Web site. “That’s basically the best way I can look at it.”
A meeting with the slumping Athletics (75-82) could help the Red Sox increase their lead. Oakland has given up 6.4 runs per game in losing six of its last seven.
The A’s managed only six hits in a 6-2 loss to Cleveland on Sunday. Daric Barton had two of those hits, as the rookie first baseman reached base safely for the 13th straight game since making his major league debut Sept. 10.
“He’s very young, but there’s no doubt he’ll get better,” A’s manager Bob Geren said of the 22-year-old Barton, who’s 18-for-54 (.333) with two home runs.
Curt Schilling (8-8, 3.97 ERA) will start for the Red Sox Tuesday in search of his first win in more than a month. The right-hander is 0-3 with a 3.38 ERA in four starts since he beat the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 24.
Two of those losses came against the Yankees, who reached Schilling for four runs in 7 2-3 innings of Boston’s 4-3 defeat Sept. 16. Schilling gave up a tiebreaking three-run homer to Derek Jeter in the eighth inning.
“I don’t question whether I can be a really good pitcher and be successful and win,” Schilling said. “Tonight boiled down to two mistakes. I missed horribly in probably the most crucial situation in the game.”
Schilling is 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 13 games - nine starts - against the Athletics, including 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA in two starts against them this year. He’ll face Oakland’s Chad Gaudin (11-12, 4.52), who’s 1-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 14 appearances against Boston.
Gaudin didn’t get a decision in his lone start against the Red Sox after allowing three runs in the Athletics’ 6-4 loss May 2.
The right-hander gave up eight runs - three earned - in four innings last Tuesday to suffer an 8-7 loss against Seattle. The defeat dropped him to 3-9 with a 6.81 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break.
“Just inconsistent,” said Gaudin, who was 8-3 with a 2.88 ERA in the first half of the season. “I’m not happy with it. You’re never happy when you lose. You live and learn. This game will humble you quickly.”
The Athletics have won four of their six meetings with the Red Sox this year and can clinch their second straight season series win over Boston with one victory in this two-game set.