Stumblin’, bumblin’ down the stretch

It's been a frustrating stretch for David Ortiz and the Red Sox.

Who would have thought that on September 21, 2011, the one team that would stand between the Red Sox and another trip to the playoffs would be the pathetic, laughable Baltimore Orioles?

The Red Sox are limping to the finish line, gasping for air, pointing fingers, and casting blame as the suddenly resurgent Tampa Bay Rays and Anaheim Angels are breathing down their necks for the AL wild card. No team in the history of baseball has blown a nine-game lead in September and failed to make the playoffs. This is a piece of history the Red Sox want no part of.

And yet, as the Sox’ bats have grown eerily silent and the hodge podge of pitching has stooped to a cringe-worthy level, there stand the Baltimore Orioles. The perennial American League East punching bag is enduring yet another in a long stretch of forgettable seasons, but nothing would be more rewarding for Buck Showalter than to have the Orioles be the team that slashes the tires on the Red Sox bandwagon.

Boston dominated the Orioles through the season’s first five months, taking 8 of the first 11 head-to-head matchups. But heading into tonight’s series finale at Fenway, Baltimore has earned at least a split by taking two of the first three games. With three games against the Yankees up next, the final three games of the season next week against the Orioles at Camden Yards could be huge.

With a highly suspect bullpen (save for Jonathan Papelbon and Alfredo Aceves) and a combustible rotation beyond Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, the Sox have no one to blame but themselves. John Lackey and Kyle Weiland are essentially throwing BP and Tim Wakefield and Andrew Miller have been brutal in stretches. And Erik Bedard — who projects as the No. 3 starter should Boston make the playoffs — threw 54 pitches in the third inning of Tuesday’s loss, lasting just 2-2/3 innings in his first start since September 3.

The Rays can smell blood in the water and, beginning Friday, play their final six games at home against the Blue Jays and Yankees. The Jays have nothing to play for and the soon-to-be-AL East champion Yankees will surely rest most of their regulars as they gear up for the playoffs.

So what three weeks ago looked like an inconsequential stretch of games against the Orioles has now become the Red Sox’ most important of the season. Close out strong and they’ll be packing their bags for a first-round matchup against the Tigers or Rangers. Continue to play as they have been since the start of September and they’ll be packing their bags to head home for a long winter of soul searching.

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