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Blame game? Sox won't win that either

NEW YORK -- It is still true, but only in the narrowest sense, that the Boston Red Sox control their own destiny.

If the past three weeks have proven anything, it is that the Sox can feel like masters of the universe one day -- or for four months -- and then suddenly find themselves cast into an alternate reality, one in which certainty is replaced by confusion and confidence by soul-sapping doubt.

"I've been here nine years. We've never collapsed that bad," David Ortiz said on Wednesday night, words that bear repeating. "Trust me, we've been through some tough times. But this is bad. No matter what we do, things are going to be bad. Right now it's depressing."

Home is no longer a refuge. Home is where the Sox were booed off the field as a parting gift from a fandom shorn of faith. And they may not be back before the "Closed for the winter" signs appear on Yawkey Way.

The bravado that allowed the Sox to stare down past challenges has been exposed as cheap talk by five wins in 21 games.

The us-against-the-world mentality that has always served as a useful rallying cry in times of crisis now smacks of mindless blame-seeking, when the wearers of the uniform can't avoid the hard truth that their failures have not been conjured by outside forces but come from their own shortcomings, apparent to all.

The injury card was played last season, an accepted explanation for a valiant effort that could not overcome calamities that arrived in waves.

The injury card, while on the table again this September with reason, does not go far enough to explain utter collapse, a plunge into darkness so thick that even the most fearless of souls, such as Dustin Pedroia, looks in vain for the familiar.

Now, no one is immune from the search to assign responsibility for systemic failure that has few rivals in baseball history. Relationships assumed to be unshakable are now called into question, the way Peter Gammons, longtime confidant of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, did Thursday when he told national radio host Dan Patrick he sensed "an increasing disconnect" between Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

It is difficult to fathom that two men who have endured so much together would contemplate the dissolution of a partnership that has borne great rewards for both, especially at a time when maintaining a united front is about all the Sox have left. Frustration on both sides? Naturally. Fissures that run deeper? Epstein denied that Friday, saying in an e-mail that "there's no disconnect" between him and Francona, adding, "we've had each other's support and admiration for eight years and that doesn't stop because the team has had a very difficult month so far.''

The owner, John W. Henry, has remained mostly silent. Henry has never been the back-page-of-the-tabloid type like his one-time partner, George Steinbrenner, and Thursday, Henry did not reply to two e-mails seeking his thoughts on the current state of the baseball arm of his sporting empire. The only headlines he has made of late have been those trumpeting his place on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans. Evidently, if President Obama's "Buffet Plan" succeeds, Henry won't have quite as much pocket change to sign off on such colossal disappointments as John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

But while the Sox's majority owner could justifiably complain about both players to the Better Business Bureau, they should not be assigned a disproportionate share of responsibility for the team's collapse. Lackey and Crawford didn't do much all summer, and for four months the Sox won more games than anybody. Now that the winning has stopped, they can't suddenly be singled out as primary culprits.

There is blame aplenty to go around, most of it endlessly discussed as a Sox lead that was nine games on Sept. 2 had dissolved to two games by Thursday, after the Tampa Bay Rays thrashed the New York Yankees, 15-8, salvaging the finale of a four-game series that damaged, but did not destroy, the Rays' hopes of overtaking the Sox.

Now, the Sox travel to the belly of the beast for three games against the Bombers in the Bronx. For the Yankees, there is nothing at stake other than the perverse pleasure of piling humiliation onto their most bitter rival. "I hate the Red Sox,'' Yankees catcher Russell Martin said Thursday, the same Russell Martin who has worn pinstripes for less than a season and was contemplating signing with Boston until the Yanks made a better offer.

The sight of blood in the water may prove irresistible to the Yankees, especially with the Sox so uncertain of their starting pitching. "To Be Announced" is listed as taking the ball on Sunday.

From there, the Sox go to Baltimore for a season-ending three-game set against the Orioles, who this week imposed their will on Boston's postseason plans by winning three of four in Fenway. The Orioles could take satisfaction in salvaging an otherwise forgettable season by finishing off the job in Camden Yards.

The Rays, meanwhile, return home for their final six games, three against the Blue Jays, then three against the Yankees. The numbers still favor the Red Sox. But in the alternative reality in which the Sox now find themselves, numbers are meaningless. The only thing that saves them now is remembering how to win.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.