NEW YORK – Losing baseball clubhouses share the cold and malodorous feel of a morgue, only without the dead people. The Boston Red Sox's gladly filled that feature early Saturday evening, as person after lifeless person filed in and out to escape their perpetual den of horrors.
Two words were spoken among teammates in the 45 minutes after the clubhouse doors swung open and the media filed in following a 9-1 loss to the New York Yankees. Just two. Dan Wheeler(notes), the injured reliever whose stuffy nose only adds insult, went on a sneezing jag. After a few, perhaps hoping to quell it, rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway(notes) offered this: "Bless you."
How all of them wish someone or something would bless them. With some fix or some confidence or some swagger. Because for the last month, the Red Sox have endured their worst 22-game stretch since 2001. It's almost inconceivable to think a team that sported the American League's best record for most of the season could lose 17 of 22 games. The Red Sox have, and in doing so what seemed a dam leak pluggable with a thumb has evolved into a season teetering on disaster.
If not for the kindness of the teams trailing them in the wild-card race, Boston's meltdown would seem even more egregious. They're still up 1½ games. After everything, they still control their destiny. And right now, that's about all they've got.
Terry Francona doesn't have the fix.
"We all want to win," he said, and that's normally implicit. Francona is the Red Sox's manager, and in addition to answering stupid media questions and drawing up a daily lineup card, his job is like a doctor's. Good managers take the temperature of their clubhouse and figure out antidotes if it's off-kilter.
The Red Sox are hypothermic, and so Francona tinkered with the lineup card. He moved Carl Crawford(notes), woeful all season, to the No. 2 hole and bumped Adrian Gonzalez(notes), his most productive hitter, to No. 5. When something goes wrong, the instinct is to change it. When something goes really wrong, the trust in instinct withers away and leaves the principal even more confused, which is how so many of these self-breeding spirals continue into what feels like a black hole.
Francona wants to rescue them. He sat cross-armed after Saturday's loss, the pose of a man deep in thought. Though what could he think other than the obvious?
"We," he said, "have to play better."
"I stink," he said.
Gone is the alpha ace who locked down Game 4 of the 2007 World Series in his return from beating cancer. Whether Lester caught the bug that has devastated the Red Sox's pitching staff or is just plain choking, his last three starts – two against Tampa Bay and Saturday's – have been miserable, poor and pathetic, respectively.
"I've been getting my ass kicked lately," he said, "and not a good time to have this stretch."
By the third inning Saturday, the Red Sox trailed 8-0. Six of those came in the second inning. Marco Scutaro )should've thrown to third base for a force out but didn’t, and Crawford should've caught a ball that would’ve been the second out in the inning, and a batter later, when Derek Jeter(notes) homered to right field, catatonia enveloped Lester.
He just stood there, among the 50,000 people at Yankee Stadium, right in the middle of their cheering Jeter and jeering him, and didn't move. It was one thing for Tim Wakefield(notes) and John Lackey(notes) and the other bundle of mediocre that comprises the Red Sox's pitching staff to blow up this month. But Lester? No. It just makes no sense.
Is he tired?
Is he hurt?
"No. We're not going to get into that. I'm not tired. I'm not hurt. There's nothing wrong with me."
Maybe not. But there is something wrong with his team.
Even in defeat, Ortiz's aura usually permeates the Red Sox's clubhouse. He throws his embellished shirts over a black wifebeater, throws a few carats in each ear, slides on his shoes and announces where he's going, whether it's to grab some sushi or meet his family. He is the Red Sox's life force, and when even Papi needs to force humor, there's trouble.
"You've got to laugh to see if you can fool somebody," he said. "Because the way things are going, you just … you don't expect a good team like this to struggle the way we have. And it seems like nothing work out."
The new lineup didn't. Neither did the two days off.
"When you start playing the game, you're not expecting anything bad to happen," Ortiz said. "You're expecting to play good and win a ballgame. We are in a funk right now, and we need to find a way out."
If only someone knew that way. Or if that way even exists.
Adrian Gonzalez is hopeful.
He's seen this before, and it's not the sort of thing, frankly, that should breed hope. Last year, his San Diego Padres built a six-game lead in the National League West only to cough it up in September. Boston's swoon has been even worse, turning a 9½-game advantage in the wild card into a tenuous lead that will grow ever more so Sunday when they trot out Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, who rank 44th and 50th among the 50 AL pitchers with at least 140 innings. If the Red Sox lose both games and Tampa Bay wins, the teams are tied for the wild card.
"This is definitely a better situation [than San Diego]," Gonzalez said. "It's the same team that started the season 2-10 and turned around and became the best team in baseball for two or three months. Get out of this funk and we're going to be the best team in baseball and hopefully going to the World Series."
Want the definition of hope: linking championship aspirations with a 5-17 record. And yet Gonzalez doesn't shy away from doing so. He's seen the Red Sox drop at least 12 runs in four of their five wins this month, and he knows an offense like that can make up for any pitching deficiency.
Even one as hopeless as Boston's.
Jonathan Papelbon(notes), the Red Sox's closer, wore a T-shirt cut off at the midriff, like Miami football players did in the '80s. On front were two more words, far more important than the ones Lavarnway spoke.
Maybe it was intentional. Probably not. Papelbon isn't one for symbolism. Still, it was telling that one of the most highly regarded closers in baseball would need use something as shallow as others' doubt to motivate him.
Lord knows enough of it hovers around the Red Sox these days to motivate a rocket to Mars. They could leech onto that doubt – others' as well as their own – and turn it into something. They could skip the wallowing, straighten themselves out by any other means and rescue what, even with a still-overwhelming lead, feels like poor odds.
Or they could do what they've been doing for damn near a month now: losing. It has infiltrated their system, metastasized and grown to define them. These Boston Red Sox are no longer the great team of summer. They're losers, and their glowers said so.
Five games remain this season, two of them Sunday in as important a doubleheader as there has been in years. The Red Sox can shed all of this nastiness with a one-two punch, a satisfactory purification that they need so very badly. Because their confidence and swagger is gone, their fixes are spent and the only thing they've got is hope and destiny. And that ain't much.
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