Red Sox feeling weight of swoon

BOSTON -- The manual on how to survive an epic collapse is ambiguous, maddeningly unclear.

Yet this much we know: It is now paramount for the Boston Red Sox to dismiss as irrelevant why this has happened, who is responsible and how their season has so spectacularly unraveled. It is unproductive to ruminate on the circumstances that have left them mired in the kind of muck that swallows faltering baseball clubs. Their mantra going forward in these final, angst-ridden days, we were informed, is to silence the "outside noises."

Good luck with that.

How can they drown out the outrage over the bloated 6.77 September ERA of their starters, the hideous blemish Josh Beckett was supposed to cut down to size Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles? Beckett was cruising through six innings until Mark Reynolds took him deep for the second time in the game, and suddenly the one sure pitcher and his one sure win were history.

A 4-1 Red Sox lead was blown, in new, devastating fashion. On a night when Carl Crawford joined the fray and went 3-for-3 with two RBIs in his first three at-bats, his fourth was a harmless groundout to second in the ninth. Boston didn't even get the ball out of the infield against reliever Jim Johnson in that final inning.

Is it possible to erase the 23 errors in the past 21 games from the memory bank? That is a daunting objective in a city whose pulse quickens every time someone plays "I'm Shipping up to Boston" and "Sweet Caroline."

Theo, Tito and 'Tek and the boys cannot claim sole possession of this Red Sox crisis. The Sox's recent, flailing futility has inflicted the kind of old-fashioned Puritan pain that has caused the team's loyal, yet discerning fan base to become downright mutinous. A couple of weeks ago, fans sensed arrogance, complacency and even a bit of ennui as their team trudged to the finish line. Those emotions have been replaced by anger, disbelief and rage.

"If I was a fan, I'd be frustrated, too," slugger David Ortiz said following Wednesday's 6-4 loss. "I've been here -- what -- nine years? I've never seen a collapse this bad."

Asked what the result of Wednesday's game meant, a distraught Dustin Pedroia answered, "It means we're a [expletive] team. You definitely don't see good teams go 5-16 in September."

Incredibly, as the Sox take to the road for the final six games of the year, they still are in command of the wild-card race. They lead the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels by 2 ½ games after their hated rival, the New York Yankees, did them a huge favor by sweeping the Rays in a doubleheader Wednesday.

The "outside" voices have grown louder and more insistent this past week. The 5-16 swoon and losses in seven of their past nine games have taken our collective breath away, like when you were a kid and fell out of a tree and got the wind knocked out of you.

Remember the feeling? For a few excruciating moments, it was terrifying because you weren't quite sure you'd ever breathe again.

There have been moments like that in the Red Sox clubhouse. Ortiz, whose self-described role is to provide levity, admitted it has been a laborious effort of late.

"There's so much confusion in my head right now," Ortiz said. "But I still think we're going to be all right."

Captain Jason Varitek likened the slide to the opening weeks of the season, when the Sox lost 10 of their first 12. The same players who turned it around then are still in the clubhouse, he reminded anyone who would listen.

"We've got six games left to make sure we control our own destiny," he said.

In the meantime, Crawford will lug the heavy mantle of the overpaid superstar in his carry-on bag, starter John Lackey will continue to mull over a witness protection program, and J.D. Drew will be -- again -- completely and utterly forgotten.

To a man, the Red Sox insist they aren't pressing, aren't panicking, aren't imploding. Yet they clearly are feeling the heat of an unthinkable, unspeakable scenario if they don't get their act together.

"Look around this clubhouse," closer Jonathan Papelbon said before Wednesday's loss. "We've got a lot of veterans who have been in this position before. I'm not worried.

"It's almost like a calculated attack. Think about it. Do we really want to be playing our best baseball right now? I want to be playing our best baseball from Sept. 28 through October.

"Look, I understand the potential danger of [playing this bad this late]. But that's why it's a calculated attack. That's the best way I can explain it. Like Winston Churchill. He attacks at night."

Papelbon's point (we think) is it's important not to peak too early. That's about the only concern the Red Sox don't have at this moment. Expecting this group to turn it around on a dime is a flawed premise at best.

The only team in baseball that's been more inept this month is the woeful Minnesota Twins (2-16). Tim Wakefield contends that when teams advance to the playoffs and all those regular-season numbers vanish, it truly is a clean slate. There are 11 players remaining from the 2007 World Series-winning Sox and four from the 2004 squad that dug itself out of a 3-0 hole in the American League Championship Series to beat the hated Yankees. But that team had excellent pitching and exceptional chemistry. Does the 2011 version share those qualities?

The pitching, not that we've seen. The chemistry, we'll see. In the meantime, the weight of losing clearly is starting to affect even the most positive and optimistic leaders in the clubhouse.

"When the team isn't playing well, your head starts spinning a little bit," Pedroia said. "You spend a lot of time asking, 'Why aren't we winning? Is it the position players? The pitching? The hitting?'

"To be honest, it's been a while since we've done all three of those things well at the same time."

The Red Sox have a plethora of hitters, but the bullpen has been taxed to the point of absurdity. Beckett took the mound in the eighth inning with 98 pitches in tow (he tapped out at 109), in part because Papelbon and Daniel Bard had pitched the night before.

Even in the wake of Wednesday's loss, Beckett (and Jon Lester) remains part of the solution, not the problem. All the Sox need is a third starter, which is ... who? Dice-K isn't walking through that door. Curt Schilling isn't, either. He's already walked out on his former team.

So here we are with six games left, and nobody knows who is in the rotation. We know who isn't -- not Kyle Weiland (0-3, 7.99 ERA), who never should have been thrust into the role in the first place. It's probably not Wakefield, who has endured one of the most rugged stretches of his career, yet still believes he can do the job. "I know I'm not an ace," he said, "but I could be an anchor."

Pick your poison between Erik Bedard and Lackey, who, despite his outrageous ERA, still receives strong support from his teammates. "I guarantee you that guy will be a different pitcher once we get into the postseason," Papelbon said.

Clay Buchholz is on the mend and slated for a bullpen role, but he, too, lobbied for that third starter's slot as "long as I feel good and don't hurt the team."

"I think it could happen," Buchholz said. "They wouldn't have put me through all this rehab if they thought I was done."

As the Sox packed their belongings and hit the road, the lights at Fenway were dimmed, perhaps for the rest of the year. Wakefield said his team was in "survival mode."

Maybe so. But why does it feel like the Red Sox are still drowning?

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.