If anyone should understand why there is no need to panic over the Boston Red Sox’s September swoon, it is the Red Sox themselves — the same team some pundits wanted to write off following a 2-10 start in April, the same team that subsequently won two-thirds of their next 123 games and hasn’t spent a day outside of first place in either the AL East division or the wild card since late May.
So, even though they were just swept by the surging Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend — giving them five straight losses, and nine in their past 11 games — and even though their lead in the wild-card race, which was nine games just nine days ago, is now down to just 3½, I would expect the Red Sox, of all teams, to understand how strong their position remains, relative to those teams chasing them.
But then there is this quote: “Hell, yeah,” Red Sox slugger David Ortiz told reporters after Sunday’s loss, “you’ve got to panic.”
It is easy to understand the knee-jerk, postgame reaction by the outspoken Ortiz. The Red Sox had just seen their co-ace, lefty Jon Lester, beaten in a game the Red Sox badly needed to win. (The other co-ace, Josh Beckett, is out because of an ankle injury and will begin throwing off a mound again this week.) The one outcome the Red Sox needed to avoid — a three-game sweep at the hands of the Rays — had just come to pass.
No sugar-coating here: The Red Sox have been terrible ever since the calendar turned to September, giving up 10 or more runs in a game three times this month and showing a bizarre inconsistency (two shutout losses, three bursts of 10-plus runs) on offense. Even if you think they will hold off the Rays and make the playoffs, they are no longer the clear-cut favorite in the AL half of the postseason bracket. And the longer Beckett is out, the worse their plight becomes — both this month and, if they make the playoffs, next.
But saying the Red Sox are about to be passed and conquered by the Rays, completing what would be an historic September collapse, would show a lack of understanding about some fundamental facts.
First, check the respective remaining schedules for Boston and Tampa. The former plays seven of its remaining games against the woeful Baltimore Orioles, against whom the Red Sox are 8-3 this season and 45-20 since the start of 2008. The latter, meantime, still faces seven games against the AL East-leading New York Yankees. The Red Sox are home for 10 of their final 16 games; the Rays are on the road for 11 of their final 17.
And speaking of schedules, the Red Sox and Rays still have one more head-to-head series, a four-gamer that begins Thursday at Fenway Park.
If the Rays sweep that series, or even win three of four, we’ll start talking about panic. Until then, the Red Sox with a 3 ½-game lead and 16 games to play still sounds like a pretty good bet.