LOS ANGELES – When Papi says panic in Boston, hell yes they panic.
Not that Red Sox fans were waiting for permission or anything, as their gallant squad won two games in going on two weeks and the Tampa Bay Rays advanced seven games on the wild card in a month, leaving everybody feeling plenty squishy.
At about the time the wild card was feeling like a dangerous concession in Boston, chancing a couple early October games against Justin Verlander(notes), that's beginning to look like the dream scenario.
It's what happens when the trainer's room fills up with starting pitchers, and the bullpen carries so many innings for 5½ months and the offense goes a little arm weary, too.
The Red Sox just came out of a three-game series against the Rays in which they had one hit in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position while their pitching staff was equally imprecise, granting 19 baserunners by way of walks or hit batsmen.
Their September ERA is 6.61.
After a passably glorious summer in which they very nearly lived up to their offseason, it's all gone flat again, and just in time to convince the Rays they're in it.
"There's nobody to blame but everybody," Ortiz told reporters Sunday in Boston, quite possibly one of the great observations of the season.
The Rays are three games back of the Red Sox after Monday night's win in Baltimore. They say they believe. They play like they believe, like all they have to lose is a season, and to a team with four times their resources. No shame in that. Their manager just mentioned in passing the Angels' collapse of 1995. You know, just sayin'.
And from the ashes of a dead September, baseball has itself the hint of a race, maybe two, maybe even three. While the Rays keep the Red Sox honest in the AL wild-card race, the St. Louis Cardinals are four games behind the Atlanta Braves in the loss column for the NL wild card, and the Los Angeles Angels are three games back of the Texas Rangers in the AL West. Long shots, maybe, but shots nonetheless, which is why Kirk Gibson, manager of the how'd-they-get-here Arizona Diamondbacks, sat on an 8½-game division lead here Monday night and still spoke through lips so tight you could play a violin solo on them.
"There's nothing gratifying about it right now," he said. "There's no comfort in that. This isn't time to feel good about what we've done. Actually, that's dangerous if you do that. … There's pressure in finishing what we started."
Tell Terry Francona about it.
The Red Sox have scheduled Tim Wakefield(notes) and John Lackey(notes) over the next two days against the Toronto Blue Jays, and in four pivotal games against the Rays beginning Thursday at Fenway Park they'll face Jeremy Hellickson(notes), James Shields(notes), Jeff Niemann(notes) and David Price(notes). They're hoping staff ace and 12-game winner Josh Beckett(notes) is healthy enough to pitch one of those games.
The last few weeks of September in Boston were going to be about freshening up the disabled, icing Beckett's ankle, maybe making the Yankees sweat just a little. The Yankees, too, have plenty to sweat about, by the way. Missing the playoffs entirely, though, wouldn't seem to be among them.
That they'll leave to the Red Sox, who'll now have to buck up against the Rays or pray the Yankees have something to play for over the final 10 days, when they'll see the Rays seven times.
It wasn't all that long ago when a follower of the Rays might have studied the standings, concluded the Rays were on pace to win 85 games, then recalled they hadn't played a meaningful game in going on two months.
And probably wouldn't again until April.
Hopelessness is a way of life for some in the AL East. It appeared the Rays were in one of those stretches again, which routinely follows a season in which they do make the playoffs. It just ticks off the wealthy and the presumptuous.
Instead, the Rays are back, with some help from the Red Sox. Now everybody has something to play for.
As Rays manager Joe Maddon mused after beating the Orioles, "It's a very interesting time."
Yeah, the last thing the Red Sox needed.