Red Sox giving fans cause for concern

BOSTON -- It's just now Labor Day, and the Red Sox are a virtual lock to go to the playoffs. When does that ever happen?

So why is it that your feelings about your baseball team these days can best be described as:

A) queasy

B) anxious

C) full-scale panic attack

D) afraid that the Fens will be available for "Spooky World" long before Halloween.

No, you're not allowed to yell "LACKEY!" all at once.

And really, there's no point in another viewing of Mike Napoli's home run Sunday off the back wall, high above the camera well, in center field. Suffice to say it traveled an estimated 446 feet, the third-longest home run at Fenway Park this season, and when Dave Magadan, the Sox hitting coach, was asked the last time he saw one hit to that spot in a game, he answered, "Never," and kept walking.

Napoli, we are sure, will never forget it, and neither, we're afraid, will Michael Bowden, the kid reliever who not only gave up that one, but three batters later served up a ball to Ian Kinsler that creamed a car on the roof of the Lansdowne Street parking garage.

By then, of course, it was garbage time, the Texas Rangers having followed up on Friday night's 10-0 whipping by opening a 9-0 spread Sunday with a seven-run sixth against Lackey and young Felix Doubront. The Venezuelan lefty is a late entry into the left-handed reliever sweepstakes and, based on Sunday's RBI-single, bases-loaded walk, sacrifice fly, walk and bases-loaded triple performance, faces 50,000-to-1 odds of winning that job.

And that speaks to the most troubling aspects of a 4-5 homestand that ended with the Sox a game and a half behind the New York Yankees for the first time since July 5 after losing two out of three to both the Bombers and the Rangers, one or both of whom will be waiting when the Sox embark on their quest to the World Series.

To enumerate:

1. Lackey's 6.11 ERA, the highest among any pitcher who qualifies to win the ERA title, would seem to disqualify him from serious consideration for the postseason rotation, except that Clay Buchholz has a bad back, Tim Wakefield hasn't won in six weeks and Andrew Miller's most recent start lasted just four outs, the shortest outing by a Sox starter this season.

Erik Bedard? He's shown enough to be considered the favorite to be the No. 3 starter, but if the Sox need a fourth, the options beyond Lackey are not attractive. Yankees fans and media have been clamoring for the Bombers to dump A.J. Burnett from their rotation for weeks, and the scary thing is Burnett's ERA (5.25) still checks in lower than Mr. Awesome O'Clock's.

So, what does Lackey hope to accomplish between now and the end of the regular season?

"To win,'' he said. "That's what they always are. Damn thing doesn't change because of the time of year. I'm going to go out there, compete my ass off, and see what happens."

True, but at this time of year you'd like to have more confidence in the outcome when Lackey is on the hill.

2. The bullpen is flying off the tracks. While the starters' ERA was a bloated 5.76 on the homestand, there was comfort to be found in the strong starts made by Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Bedard. But the bridge between the starters and back-enders Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon has been reduced to a single lane -- Alfredo Aceves.

Matt Albers has imploded, Bobby Jenks has been all but written off, Dan Wheeler gets mop-up duty and Franklin Morales hasn't convinced anybody that he can be counted upon to deliver the big outs against lefties in October.

Miller could still end up in the bullpen, though his lack of command makes that a dubious proposition, and Doubront, who was sidetracked by injuries this season, came undone Sunday against the Rangers after a promising outing against the Yankees on Thursday night, when he went two scoreless innings.

Lackey, of all people, chided Sox fans for their lack of compassion toward the kid on Sunday, when he inherited the bases-loaded, no-out mess from the Sox's starter.

"Felix came in in a tough spot, especially for a young kid, to get booed like that, for a young kid that's … he's been doing a lot of good things," Lackey said. "I felt bad for him.''

A little empathy for Doubront would have been welcome, but evidently that was asking too much of fans who have watched the Sox give up 10 or more runs three times on this homestand, once to Oakland, twice to the Rangers. Until this latest go-round, the Sox had given up double digits in runs just once since May 31, and they won that game 15-10 against the Baltimore Orioles.

"He just didn't throw enough strikes," Terry Francona said of Doubront. "A strength of his coming in is establishing fastball command, being able to pitch with the fastball to both sides of the plate. He just fell behind, and then he hung a breaking ball."

That was the one whacked by Josh Hamilton for a bases-loaded triple, one of six extra-base hits the Rangers had on the afternoon, continuing the trend of one or the other of these teams putting a hurt on the other. Close game? No chance. The Rangers won six times against the Sox, all by four or more runs and by a combined score of 51-15. The Sox won four times, all by five or more runs, by a combined score of 42-16.

Nice to know the Sox can whip up on the Rangers. A little disconcerting when it's the other way around. That can make you feel queasy. Anxious. Panicked. Or looking ahead to Spooky World.

What it doesn't do, even though you know deep down the Sox are probably better than this, is make you feel real good about what lies ahead.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.