BALTIMORE — It was more or less a straight line that ran from the Boston Red Sox’ dugout, past the Camden Yards pitcher’s mound, to the digital out-of-town scoreboard on the wall in right field. From their top-step perch Monday night, the visiting Red Sox could watch each pitch, then check the score of the New York-Tampa Bay game without so much as a twist of the neck or a pivot of the eye.
Such is the state of the Red Sox’ tenuous existence these days, as they attempt to stave off the worst September collapse in baseball history, that every pitch brought not just one life-or-death or moment, but two.
And by the end of the night, baseball’s version of death — elimination — crept two steps closer to the Red Sox and grabbed them by their necks. Their gruesome collapse continued with a 6-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, while the Rays were beating the Yankees in St. Petersburg, Fla., 5-2.
And so, stunningly, the last, fine grains of the Red Sox’ once-insurmountable lead in the American League wild-card race — which stood at nine games just three weeks ago — have dissolved and disappeared. The Red Sox’ loss and the Rays’ win mean the teams are tied for the wild card with two games to play. In the event of a tie, a one-game playoff would be held Thursday at Tropicana Field. No team in history has blown such a big lead in September.
“There’s not much to say,” Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. “We’ve backed ourselves about as far as we can go.”
The Orioles, thriving in the role of playoff spoilers this month, broke a 2-2 tie in the pivotal bottom of the sixth inning with four runs off Boston ace Josh Beckett, the last three of which scored on Robert Andino’s inside-the-park homer. In a miserable stretch in which misfortune seems to find them at every turn, the Red Sox saw center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a leading MVP candidate, get his glove on the ball at the warning track at the end of a sprint from shallow center. But as he hit the wall, the ball squirted free and Andino motored around the bases.
“Right down the middle,” Beckett said of the fastball to Andino.
The Red Sox, 6-19 in September, brought the tying run to the plate in the eighth and ninth innings. In the former, Marco Scutaro grounded out to leave the bases loaded; in the latter, Orioles reliever Jim Johnson got Adrian Gonzalez to fly to left for the second out, then struck out Jed Lowrie to end the game.
“We’ve got two games left,” Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “We’re going to come out and play as hard as we can. I can promise you that.”
The Red Sox arrived in Baltimore in full survivor mode. They had played 23 innings the day before in New York, had used 10 pitchers, had arrived at their Inner Harbor hotel in the wee hours Monday. They spent much of Monday afternoon taking stock of who could give them how much that night. Francona recited the injury report to a swollen media pack: Kevin Youkilis was too sore to play. Scott Atchison was too sore to pitch. Clay Buchholz was almost ready to pitch again, maybe on Wednesday. Jason Varitek was iffy.
A win in the nightcap of Sunday’s doubleheader in the Bronx had staved off disaster for a few hours, and gave the Red Sox a chance to do something they hadn’t done since late August: Win consecutive games. In a best-case scenario, a win in Baltimore and a Rays loss would have given the Red Sox a two-game lead with two to play. Perhaps they could clinch by Wednesday, and save lefty ace Jon Lester for Game 1 of the Division Series.
By the time the Red Sox batted a second time Monday night, a “1” had gone up next to the “NYY” on the out-of-town scoreboard: The Yankees had taken the lead in St. Petersburg. But like each of the Red Sox’s two one-run leads in Baltimore, it wouldn’t last.
“Not really,” Francona said when asked if he was scoreboard-watching. “I was trying to concentrate on our game.”
On Monday night, the scoreboard told the tale: The Red Sox would get no help from the Yankees. Even worse, they could not find a way to help themselves. And another day dropped off a regular season calendar that now has just two days remaining, two more chances for the Red Sox to avoid a particularly awful fate.