Red Sox back where they started

BOSTON -- Inside the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, David Ortiz was marveling at the sight of Jacoby Ellsbury flying around the bases on his inside-the-park home run Monday night, one that didn't even require a slide.

"Did you see Ellsbury running? He was going full speed," Ortiz said. "How many [expletives] can do that here?

"I haven't seen him run like that in a while because he's always going deep. He's just getting himself in trouble -- people going to expect those 30 bombs every year."

After 10 long hours of baseball Monday -- 1:06 p.m. first pitch, 11:06 p.m. the last -- the Red Sox had reason to exult. They had uncapped a pressure valve before it imploded with 20 hits and 18 runs, both matching season highs, in an 18-9 win over the Baltimore Orioles that gave them a doubleheader split, maintained their two-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race, and shaved two games off their schedule.

The Sox have eight games left, the Rays 10. Boston's magic number for advancing to October is eight. Any combination of Sox wins or Rays losses totaling eight will mean a return to the playoffs for the seventh time in the past nine seasons.

"We need to win every game we possibly can," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said after first playfully complaining. "Do I have to talk to you guys? I've been here 14 hours."

Maybe they were just too tired to bother, but there was no music blaring in the clubhouse after Monday night's win. Or maybe that was for the same reason that pitching coach Curt Young was standing in a hallway outside the coaches' room, engaged in conversation with general manager Theo Epstein and assistant Brian O'Halloran.

Any notion to celebrate winning Monday night was tempered by the knowledge that the Sox's starting pitching continues to be horrific, a month-long trend that is reason No. 1 for the team having to sweat out these final days after being nine games ahead of the Rays on Sept. 2, just 18 days ago.

Rookie Kyle Weiland was overmatched in Game 1, giving up six runs -- and three home runs -- in 4 2/3 innings. Pressed into emergency duty because of Erik Bedard's sore left knee, Weiland has become part of the problem instead of the solution, his record now 0-3 with a 7.99 ERA in six starts.

After that game, in a rare instance of a Sox player publicly second-guessing manager Terry Francona, Ortiz grumbled that Alfredo Aceves should be starting, an idea that Francona has previously admitted has merit but has resisted because, he said, Aceves has been too valuable in the bullpen.

Ortiz's side of the debate gained further ammunition in the second game when John Lackey was given license once again to demonstrate that $82.5 million just doesn't buy what it used to. Five batters into the game, the Orioles led 3-0, the 18th time in 21 games and the 11th time in the past 12 that Sox opponents had scored first.

Boston's saving grace was that Baltimore's pitching was worse. The Sox scored 11 runs in the first three innings, Jed Lowrie providing the biggest counterpunch of the night with a three-run homer in a four-run first inning. But even that wasn't enough to assure a win for Lackey, who was yanked with one out in the fifth, the Orioles having drawn to within 11-8.

Lackey stared at Francona from the time he noticed the manager headed his way until he arrived at the mound. If he was dismayed that Francona would come for him, he was pretty much alone, the crowd of 37,261 erupting in cheers at the sight of the manager.

And there would be instant gratification, as reliever Scott Atchison threw one pitch for an inning-ending double play. The outcome remained in some doubt, however, the Orioles tacking on a run in the sixth on Vladimir Guerrero's double, and Baltimore might have had more if Vladi the Impaler hadn't hoisted himself on his own petard by trying to stretch it into a triple.

It wasn't until a seven-run seventh that the Sox had a lead even their shaky pitching could protect, an inning that began with Ellsbury banging a drive that struck the railing on the triangle side of the Sox's bullpen and ricocheted past oncoming center fielder Matt Angle, and ended with Conor Jackson's grand slam.

Jackson was in the game only because Carl Crawford wasn't. Crawford was a late scratch from Game 1 because of neck spasms that occurred, according to Francona, on his first swing in the batting cage, and instead of abating only became worse. Crawford had been benched the day before against Tampa Bay lefty David Price, and his replacements could hardly have been overlooked Monday.

Darnell McDonald, who played left in Game 1, lost a ball in the sun, had the next ball clank off his glove for a damaging error, then later homered, his first off a right-handed pitcher this season.

Jackson, who had misplayed a fly ball on Sunday, made a sprawling catch in Game 2, then unloaded on reliever Brad Bergesen for his first home run with the Red Sox.

It was the first time in Sox history that they had both an inside-the-parker and a slam in the same inning. The Houston Astros did it on Aug. 31, 1992, Greg Anthony hitting the slam, Ken Caminiti the inside-the-parker.

"It was just one of those games where both teams were having a hard time getting anybody out," catcher Jason Varitek said of the highest-scoring game of the season for the Sox, with a combined 27 runs, 33 hits, 12 walks and 3 home runs, all by the Sox. Varitek was an exception to his own observation, striking out four times in a game for the eighth time in his career, first since April 21, 2010.

When WBZ's Jonny Miller opined that the Sox needed better pitching, Pedroia responded, "What are you, a general manager? Better get your resume together."

Ortiz, who had already made his feelings known about Aceves between games, was less inclined to revisit the subject after the nightcap. A need for better pitching?

"Well, that ain't my decision," he said.

Sox starters have a 6.87 ERA in the past 19 games, which is no way to advance into October, and a formula for disaster once you get there.

Lackey, who should have had an easy win, instead remains at 12-12 (the win going to Atchison), while his ERA climbed to 6.49, the highest it has been since July 16, and unchallenged as the worst ERA ever by a Sox starter with more than 150 innings. Jack Lamabe had the highest with a 5.89 ERA in 1964, but he also made 14 relief appearances. Highest ERA by a Sox pitcher who was exclusively a starter? Would you believe Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley (5.61 in 1983)?

"I can't explain it, man, that's the best I've felt warming up in the bullpen all year," Lackey said afterward. "I don't know what the hell happened."

That could serve, of course, as the signature line of his misbegotten season.

The question for the Sox, however, remains: When does it get better, which undoubtedly was a topic touched upon by Epstein in his chat with Young. Tuesday night, left-hander Erik Bedard, who hasn't pitched in 17 days because of a sore left knee, faces one of his former teams, his reputation sullied by how often he has been hurt.

He doesn't figure to go deep into the night Tuesday. Sox hitters are advised to keep their weapons loaded.

"Whatever it takes, man," Ortiz said.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.