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Red Sox ailing and flailing as season wears on

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NEW YORK – The idea was to turn October into a month-long retirement party, with the final reward a World Series ring inscribed with his name. A small price, he had decided, for leaving Atlanta, his home of the past two decades, for a summer of love in Boston.

Instead, it has come to this, John Smoltz(notes) a proud pitcher turned piñata on the Yankee Stadium mound. Thursday night, he looked as much a relic of the past as the night's celebrated pregame guest, a feeble Muhammad Ali.

Ring? If this continues, the 42-year-old Smoltz will be lucky if Boston graces him with a handshake and gold watch as it shows him the door.

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John Smoltz (right) gave up eight runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings.
(Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

"Pretty humbled right now with the way things have gone,'' a somber Smoltz said after a 13-6 loss to the New York Yankees in which he was battered for eight runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings, including home runs by Johnny Damon(notes) and Melky Cabrera(notes). "I don't like to use the word embarrassed, but I have a lot of pride, and I certainly don't like letting somebody down.

"They're feasting off every mistake I'm making.''

The Boston Red Sox may want to reconsider their strategy of recycling broken-down Cy Young Award winners. It didn't work out last season with Bartolo Colon(notes), who ended his unproductive tenure with the club last September by going AWOL back to the Dominican Republic, and it has been calamitous with Smoltz, who Thursday night became the first Red Sox pitcher in nine games to lose to the Yankees in 2009.

Smoltz – who was designated for assignment Frida – has made eight starts for the Red Sox since being activated June 25, a little more than five weeks ago, and lasted as many as six innings just twice. Boston has lost six of those starts. The right-hander has allowed five or more earned runs six times. In his previous 20 seasons, only twice has that happened more often – in 1990 and 1991, his first two seasons as a full-time starter.

His record is 2-5, the earned run average a hideous 8.32. Smoltz has proven helpless against left-handed batters: Yankee batters hitting from the left side of the plate Thursday were 9 for 13 (.692) with three walks against him, whose season's yield against left-handed hitters is .444 (40-90), four HRs and 17 walks.

A million things, he agreed, raced through his head as he sat on the bench after manager Terry Francona lifted him. "I can't share all the things that were going through my mind,'' he said.

One, surely, was that he may be hurtling toward the end much faster than he had intended, and that the last goodbye may not come on his terms. Hard to see his way out of this?

"It is right now,'' he said Thursday, "but I'm a fighter and Lord willing, I'll get up tomorrow and try to figure out ways to fix this or do whatever I have to do, but I'm not doing it right now.''

The realist in him admits that the fight might be taken out of his hands.

"Time may not be on my side if this continues,'' Smoltz said before being cut. "I just know I can't keep doing what I'm doing.''

Francona said the Red Sox had adjusted Smoltz's arm slot to a lower position, and that Smoltz tried to come inside with his fastball more. But after shoulder and elbow surgery, his fastball is no better than average, and if his command is not perfect, he pays.

"I don't think five minutes after a game we need to come to conclusions,'' Francona said Thursday night when asked if Smoltz will make his next scheduled start.

"They started taking some pretty healthy swings … Once it went, it went in a hurry.''

The gap between the first-place Yankees, winners of 15 of their last 20 games, and second-place Red Sox (3½ games) is now greater than the gap separating the Red Sox from the third-place Rays (2½), who swept two in the Trop from Boston, sending the unmistakable message that this will be a three-way dance.

And suddenly, the Red Sox, who have lost 6½ games in the standings since taking a three-game lead into the All-Star break, are the ones teetering, even with the addition of switch-hitting All-Star catcher Victor Martinez(notes). Outsiders had marveled at the depth of Red Sox pitching, but with Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) repeating spring training because of a World Baseball Classic hangover and Tim Wakefield(notes) on the DL with lower back problems, Boston is down to two dependable pitchers, Josh Beckett(notes) and Jon Lester(notes). The rest of the rotation – Brad Penny(notes), Clay Buchholz(notes) and Smoltz – have a combined 8.45 ERA since the break. Wakefield could be back in the next week or so, but the Red Sox are now adding pieces, like Paul Byrd(notes), signed to a minor league contract earlier this week.

Distress signals are everywhere. Kevin Youkilis(notes), normally a corner infielder, played left field Thursday night because Jason Bay(notes) aggravated his right hamstring and Rocco Baldelli(notes) fouled a ball off his ankle. Bay may miss the weekend; Baldelli was placed on the DL.

David Ortiz(notes), whose loveable Big Papi persona was cast into the steroid sludge last week, hit home runs in each of the first two games after he was outed, but has just one hit in his last 19 at-bats after going 0 for 5 Thursday. Ortiz intends to address the steroid question Saturday in a pregame press conference with union chief Michael Weiner, but there's no magic bullet that will make it all go away.

"I'm going to let you guys know what I got, period,'' Ortiz said.

Red Sox shortstops Jed Lowrie(notes) and Nick Green(notes) combined to whiff four times in four at-bats, with Lowrie leaving in the middle of the fourth after feeling a tingling sensation in the fingers of his left hand, according to Francona, on a foul ball. Lowrie, who missed nearly three months after undergoing surgery on his left wrist, will be evaluated further for what is being called a forearm strain for now.

Taking one for the team Thursday night was Billy Traber(notes), called up to spare an overworked bullpen. Traber was pummeled for five runs on nine hits, including two more home runs, in 3 2/3 innings.

The night was hardly a complete artistic success for the Yankees, not when they walked 12 batters (seven in five innings for starter Joba Chamberlain(notes)) and hit a batter, Dustin Pedroia(notes), who was drilled by reliever Mark Melancon(notes) in the eighth inning a couple of pitches after Melancon had thrown one over his head. That drew a warning from plate umpire Derryl Cousins, and an escort to first base from catcher Jorge Posada(notes) for Pedroia, who could be seen shooting expletives Melancon's way.

"I don't know why they'd be throwing at me,'' Pedroia said.

The Red Sox are still smarting from Chamberlain hitting Bay with a pitch earlier this season, after Bay had hit a home run. With the prickly Beckett pitching Friday night, the Yankees may yet regret Melancon's faulty aim.

"We still like our team,'' Francona had said before the game. "When things don't go well, we got guys who keep playing and figure out how to get through tough times.''

Those times have arrived. Might be time to take a page from Ali and go to the rope-a-dope, and hope the Yankees punch themselves out.