Red Sox in dangerous territory

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's simple, really.

With seventeen games left, the Red Sox either make the playoffs or make history.

The kind of history that still sends shivers through New Englanders for whom even two World Series titles haven't completely removed the stain of past collapses.

The math remains in Boston's favor.

But forget your computer simulations and pocket calculators and magic numbers. The final days of a baseball season always come down to flesh and blood, tired muscle and aching sinew, strong wills and faltering nerves.

Seventeen games, and Boston's lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild card is 4½ games, 4 games in the loss column. Just over a week ago, the only remaining issue for the Sox was whether they would win the division over the Yankees. Now, neither team can stop losing -- four losses in a row for both teams, which has kept the Yankees safely ensconced in first place, 2½ games ahead of the Sox.

The Rays, meanwhile, have been an afterthought all season. Ten games out of the wild card on Aug. 7, and 6½ games out when this series began Friday night. Then they lit up John Lackey on Friday night, survived a ninth-inning Sox comeback Saturday, and extended a nightmarish week for Daniel Bard, who took the loss in the 11th inning in his first outing since he blew up 200-for-Wake Night in Toronto.

The Rays could have been just like you Sunday morning, focused on their fantasy football teams. Instead, they remain fully engaged in Fantasy Baseball, the kind that lives by the mantra, "It ain't over till it's over, magic numbers be damned."

Four teams in major league history have trailed by 6½ games or more with 20 games to play and advanced to the postseason. The Rays aim to make it five.

"Everybody believes that we can do this,'' said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who used eight pitchers Saturday night, the win going to one Brandon Gomes of Fall River, Mass., by way of Tulane University and the San Diego Padres. "There's no question in my mind. Especially now. We validated the charge over the last two days.''

How dangerous are the Rays? We put the question to the former Ray, Carl Crawford.

"They've got a good team,'' he said, "so they can be real dangerous.''

Does Crawford think the Rays actually believe they can overtake the Sox?

"I'm sure Joe is giving them the confidence to think that way,'' he said.

The Red Sox could have squashed that notion for good had they been able to do more than stage a dramatic comeback engineered by back-to-back home runs off Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury that tied the score in the ninth.

Instead, after Jonathan Papelbon set down six Rays in order in the ninth and 10th, Bard entered and gave up a leadoff triple to rookie left-fielder Desmond Jennings, heir to Crawford's former place in the Rays universe. Ellsbury made a diving attempt for the ball as he and right fielder Darnell McDonald converged. Replays showed that McDonald might have had a better shot at making the catch, although Ellsbury could not have known that when he dived.

Jennings said he thought Ellsbury would get there when the ball came off the bat. It was either that, he said, or a triple.

"The ball just fell in,'' McDonald said. "One of those things. We got there at the same time. We went for it and the ball fell in.''

Bard got one out, inducing B.J. Upton to ground to Adrian Gonzalez at first. He then got ahead of Evan Longoria, 0 and 2, only to have Longoria line the next pitch into center field, the catalyst for a dogpile of Rays at first base.

"I can't second-guess myself,'' Bard said. "I threw the pitch exactly where I wanted. Chest high. 98. He tomahawked it.''

How dangerous are the Rays? Say this: Their starting pitching is considerably more stable than Boston's wounded rotation is. Saturday night, Sox rookie Kyle Weiland high-wired his way through four innings, the eighth time in the last 10 games that a starter has gone five innings or fewer. The Rays starters, their rotation intact, have gone five or fewer innings just eight times since the All-Star break. Saturday night, rookie-of-the-year candidate Jeremy Hellickson went six, keeping the Sox quiet until Gonzalez's 25th home run with a man aboard tied the score at 3.

On Sunday, the Sox will turn to Jon Lester, the best possible option left for Francona to make the Rays cease and desist in their improbable quest. The Rays are countering with James Shields.

Lester is coming off a win in his last start in which he allowed just three hits in seven scoreless innings in Toronto. He has allowed one run or fewer in his last five starts, going 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA in that span. Only Lefty Grove in 1936 can claim the same among Sox left-handers.

Lester also has had great success against the Rays, holding them to a run on three hits in a 3-1 win in Boston on Aug. 18. He has never lost in the regular season at the Trop, going 4-0 with a 2.92 ERA. He is 6-2 overall in his last eight starts against the Rays.

How much does it mean to the Sox to have him pitching Sunday?

"I hope a lot,'' Francona said. "They're probably saying the same thing about Shields. It should be a pretty good matchup.''

The Sox have had success against Shields, who is just 6-11 with a 4.84 ERA in his career against them, but he threw a five-hit shutout against them here in June, and he pitched well in losing a duel to Lester in August, with Boston's only runs coming on a three-run homer by Ellsbury.

The math favors the Sox. The flesh and blood?

"Any time we lose, we don't like to lose,'' Francona said. "We probably stay more in the present than you [media]. Whether we won seven in a row or lost seven in a row, our goal is to win tomorrow. That's the best way to go about it. The only way to go about it. Any other way doesn't help.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.