Loss to Orioles shows thin margin for error

BOSTON -- With the Boston Red Sox inching closer to the American League East crown, performing at an incredibly consistent rate and simply gearing up for a champagne celebration in the coming days, the action on the field may soon begin to lose its importance and intensity. Not that there isn’t anything to play for, but the worry over whether Boston is a legit contender vanished long ago.

That lack of intensity was evident Tuesday night at Fenway Park. There were plenty of empty seats. The Red Sox managed just three hits. Fans sat on their hands and waited for good news from out-of-town scores. The windows in the press box were closed as scribes sipped coffee and occasionally glanced up from their laptops to see what had happened when a rare cheer arose from the fans.

However, if there are any overconfident Boston fans who need a reminder of how razor-thin the margin for error is in the postseason, they would do well to take a closer look at the seemingly run-of-the-mill 3-2 setback Tuesday night. It was the kind of game that would have fans cursing and second-guessing their way through sleepless nights if it were to happen just three weeks down the road.

To begin with, there was the pitching, oh-so-important in October. While walks came at a pretty steady clip, few hitters made solid contact on a chilly night outside of solo homers by Dustin Pedroia and Chris Davis. Baltimore turned three double plays to escape a few jams and help offset some rare shoddy defense, and Boston had a series of sparkling defensive plays to limit the Orioles’ chances.

And after the Sox survived a tight jam in the eighth, they saw Baltimore take a lead in the ninth on a triple and sacrifice fly against uber-closer Koji Uehara. The three-bagger off the bat of Danny Valencia barely got over the outstretched glove of center fielder Shane Victorino, who has hauled in nearly everything hit his way this season.

“An 0-2 fastball that [Uehara] tries to elevate,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “Valencia gets a good part of the bat on it and Vic makes a heck of an effort where it goes off his glove. The triple -- obviously in a no-out, man-at-third situation. Then they get the sacrifice fly and, at the time of the game, that’s the difference in it.”

Uehara said his pitch to Valencia was just about where he wanted it, but “a little high.” Victorino said he should have caught the ball. An untouchable closer and a vacuum cleaner in the outfield both missed their mark by the smallest of margins. The plays received attention Tuesday but it is nothing compared to the microscope that October will bring.

The Sox got a man into scoring position with two outs in the ninth before Xander Bogaerts struck out to end the threat. Perhaps Bogaerts won’t be in that kind of a situation come October, but most other aspects of this tight affair could easily translate to the bigger stage.

And it bears noting that the better the opponent and the tighter the affair, the less successful Boston is. That’s why playoff baseball is a crapshoot. A team can be as complete and cohesive as the Sox are, and a few double plays and a triple off a center fielder’s glove can make it all a nonfactor.

The Red Sox are 20-18 against the other four teams currently in position for a playoff spot and have losing marks against both Baltimore and Kansas City, two of the prime contenders to steal a wild-card position with a late rush. Those are the teams that pitch, catch and perform in the clutch, all the factors that can decide a game in tight October baseball. Much like what we saw on an otherwise quiet September night at Fenway.