All signs point to trouble for Sox

BOSTON -- Just a guess, but we're thinking @ochocinco won't be weighing in on this one.

The only folks impressed by this performance all have ZIP codes in the Tampa Bay area. And one of them, Rays manager Joe Maddon, was more than happy to play the team-of-destiny card after the Tampa Bay Rays used the old shatter-a-bat, win-valuable-prizes stratagem to great advantage in their 9-2 win over the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night.

"Obviously, we got a break with the broken bat. My God, I've never seen that one before, ball and bat arriving at about the same time in the hole at shortstop," Maddon said about a two-out routine roller to Marco Scutaro that turned lethal when the broken barrel of Upton's 34-inch, 31-ounce black Louisville Slugger preceded the ball by a scant moment.

Scutaro skipped over the shooting shard, and the ball continued undisturbed through his legs for an RBI single. Red Sox rookie Kyle Weiland, who never witnessed anything that weird when he was at Notre Dame, promptly gave up a three-run home run to Evan Longoria, and the Rays led, 4-0, in the third.

"You're always looking for signs, you're looking for signs, man,'' Maddon said. "You're looking for signs from the baseball gods. They've got to throw you a sign once in a while. They've got to give you something to further the belief. Believe me, when I saw that I thought, 'Hey, let's see what's going to happen for the rest of this game,' and then the home run followed it right up."

The math majors all say the Red Sox, with a three-game lead and 13 games to play, should still be favored to advance to the playoffs. The performance on the field, however, suggests that one team is clearly superior when the Red Sox and Rays convene, and it's not the team clinging to statistical probability as its best ticket to October.

The Rays on Thursday night made it six in a row over the Sox, including four wins in the past seven days, and the second consecutive win by a lopsided score. If this continues through the weekend, the teams will part ways tied for the wild-card spot. The numbers crunchers say not to worry, the Rays have only a 14 percent chance of advancing. But after a beating like the one meted out Thursday night by the Rays, who were just as dominant in sweeping the Sox out of the Trop last weekend, the Optimists Club has gone underground, at least for the time being.

Long before this one ended, a crowd of 38,071 at Fenway Park had dispersed to more hospitable climes, the Sox giving them no reason to endure a pre-autumn chill and occasional showers. For the first time in memory, Neil Diamond barely had a chorus for "Sweet Caroline.''

And while the Sox may have been cursing their luck early on, by the end of the night, luck was far down the list of reasons the Sox absorbed another whuppin' from the Rays. Red Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledged as much when he credited the Rays for capitalizing on their twist of fate.

"We still have to make pitches,'' Francona said after noting that Longoria jumped on a fastball down the middle from Weiland. "They extended the inning and they took advantage of it. That's what good teams do.''

Tampa Bay hit two more home runs, a two-run shot by Casey Kotchman, his fourth against the Sox this season, which is three more than Sox sluggers Adrian Gonzalez (1) and David Ortiz (0) have combined to hit against the Rays.

The other home run was delivered by Upton, who can officially proclaim that he is Matt Albers' daddy after taking the Red Sox reliever deep for the second straight at-bat. On Sunday, Upton hit a slam off Albers. Thursday night was merely a two-run number. Of course, Albers' family tree is expanding exponentially every time he pitches: In his past dozen appearances dating to Aug. 16, Albers has a 16.87 ERA (20 ER in 10 2/3 innings) and has allowed four home runs, with opposing hitters posting a .400-plus batting average and 1.200-plus OPS.

The Sox, meanwhile, are batting .178 against the Rays, a number that is loaded with historical implications. The record keepers could only go back to 1946, but that's the worst the Sox have hit against any opponent (minimum 10 games) in the 65 years that have passed since then. Previous low? The .204 against Baltimore in 1966, when the Orioles had a precocious group of kids much like the present-day Rays and swept the Dodgers four straight in the World Series.

In Fenway Park, meanwhile, the Sox are hitting just .162 against the Rays, a number that eclipses their previous low of .187 in 1973 against Oakland, another team that went on to win the World Series.

And you're looking for signs, Joe Maddon?

The Sox didn't move the needle Thursday, managing just six singles, two in the ninth, including Jose Iglesias's first major-league hit. Rookie of the year candidate Jeremy Hellickson gave up three hits and a run in 5 2/3 innings for the win.

"Pitching, man, good pitching will shut down any kind of offense,'' Ortiz said. "These guys pitching, there's no fear, you know what I'm saying? When you go down to the scouting reports, I'm pretty sure these guys are changing everybody's scouting report. They don't stay with one thing. They go to everything any time, any situation. The most impressive thing about them is that they know how to spot their pitches.''

And the one time the Sox threatened, in the bottom of the third when they scored once and had two runners on, the Rays took advantage of an obvious Boston weakness, walking Ortiz intentionally to get to Kevin Youkilis, who is trying to play through a sports hernia and bursitis in his left hip. It's not working.

Youkilis, whose every movement is painful, grounded out to third. After his strikeout in the sixth, Francona lifted him from the game. He won't play Friday night, Francona said, and his availability after that is highly uncertain, even though the manager said Youkilis is "nowhere near pulling the plug" on the rest of the season.

"You're trying everything you got,'' Ortiz said. "Youk is playing injured. I went out there and I'm not 100 percent yet [back spasms]. You saw Gonzo yesterday, his leg tightened up on him, he went and played today.

"You can't do more than that. You got to just deal with it. You don't see anyone trying to shut it down. We know we have to win these games. That's why you see us trying to play, even through injuries, because we know we're running out of time."

On Sunday, when Ortiz was asked whether it was time to panic, he answered in the affirmative. Thursday night, when the question was posed anew, he offered this advice to the team's followers: "Hang in there.''

But he admitted he can think of little else but the team's precarious situation.

"You have to,'' he said. "There's no way you can get that out of your head. In my case, you try to turn the page, come back the next day, and try to kick some [posteriors]. What can you do? Lose a game like tonight, all you can do is come back and try to do something different.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.