Time to embrace spoiler role

BOSTON -- Nothing to play for?

Au contraire, mes amis, as Victor Hugo, the guy who wrote the prequel to this Red Sox season, "Les Miserables," might say.

With 21 games left, the season still abounds with intrigue, even beyond the question of how many empty seats will masquerade as ticket holders in the final three-plus weeks, or whether Bobby Valentine will go out with guns blazing.

History, for example, is on the line.

• Will the Red Sox finish in last place for only the second time in the past 80 years?

After being swept by the Blue Jays this weekend in Fenway, the Sox trail Toronto by two games and must go to Rogers Centre next weekend for three more games. The Sox finished last in 1992, the only time they finished at the bottom since baseball split the leagues into divisions in 1969. Before that, you have to go back to 1932 to find a Sox team that came in last. That bunch went 43-111 and was preceded by a Sox team that posted six straight last-place finishes from 1925 to 1930 in the wake of the Great Selloff to the Yankees (Babe Ruth, et al).

• Will the Red Sox finish with their worst record in the post-Impossible Dream era?

This will be a nail-biter. The Sox are 63-78, 15 games under .500. The '92 team was 73-89, which means the Sox will have to go 10-11 just to equal that mark. They'll have to go 9-12 to match the 72-90 record of the 1966 team, the immediate predecessors of the '67 Impossible Dreamers.

That looms as a tall task for a team that has lost 11 of its past 12 and has gone 10-27 since Aug. 1, back in the days when Valentine still publicly contemplated a postseason spot. The team ERA since then is 5.52, and the club has been bludgeoned by land (opponents have succeeded on 39 out of 44 stolen-base attempts) and by air (53 home runs allowed, one fewer than the Angels and, interestingly, the same number as the Yanks, who have been pummeled for 20 homers in the first nine days of September).

Eight Sox pitchers, led by the departed Josh Beckett (9.92 ERA in three starts), have posted ERAs above 5.00 since Aug. 1. Only three pitchers have sub-4 ERAs: Clay Buchholz (3.81), Jon Lester (3.70) and Junichi Tazawa (2.00).

While the pitching has borne the brunt of criticism, the offense has been hit or miss -- mostly miss. After Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Jays, the Sox have been held to three runs or fewer 19 times in the past 37 games. Two players have an on-base percentage higher than .300 since Aug. 1: Dustin Pedroia (.407) and Cody Ross (.365). Jacoby Ellsbury, last year's MVP runner-up, is at .274.

It hardly works in the Sox's favor that they play 13 of their last 21 games away from Fenway Park. Road warriors, they're not. At home, they rank third in OPS (.805), third in OBP (.341) and fourth in slugging (.464). On the road, it's 11th in OPS (.688), 12th in OBP (.300) and ninth in slugging (.388).

Yes, the road record is better (31-37, .456 on the road; 32-41, .438 at home), but not by much.

• But there is more than history at stake here. There's that age-old motive, revenge.

Cast in the unfamiliar role of spoiler this season, the Red Sox have a great opportunity to settle some old scores, beginning Tuesday night, when the Yankees arrive for three games. The Sox finish the season in New York with three games against the Bombers, and for at least that segment of fans who belong to the "Anybody but the Yankees" crowd, it might prove a welcome salve that the Yankees also miss the postseason.

The Bombers, however, have won eight of 12 games against the Sox this season, and the Sox will be missing David Ortiz, who scorched the Yanks with a .619 average (13-for-21), and Adrian Gonzalez, who led the club with three home runs and nine RBIs. They still have Yankee-killer Pedro Ciriaco (15-for-32, .469), but the Caramba! kid has just four singles in 35 at-bats over his past 10 games, a .114 clip.

Then there are the Orioles, the pride of Dan Duquette, whose team has exploited his former club's collapse to make a run at its first postseason spot since 1997. No less an authority than Ortiz is predicting the Orioles will be playing in October, although again, the Sox have ample incentive to prevent that from happening.

It was Baltimore, remember, that beat the Sox five out of seven times in last season's final 10 days, eliminating them on the last night. The Red Sox were 76-0 in games in which they took a lead into the ninth until the Curse of the Andino (as in Robert Andino) struck Jonathan Papelbon.

The Red Sox have six chances left to inflict a similar wound on the Orioles. Baltimore, which has won eight of 12 games from the Sox, will be here Sept. 21-23; the Sox go to Camden Yards on Sept. 28-30.

Finally, there are the Rays, who kept the Sox from returning to the World Series in 2008, when they beat them in seven games in the ALCS, and improbably rallied from a 7-0 deficit in Game 162 to beat the Yankees and KO the Sox again, minutes after Boston's loss in Baltimore.

The Sox go to the Trop for four (Sept. 17-20), then get two more games at home (Sept. 25-26). Earlier this season, the managers, Valentine and Joe Maddon, lobbed verbal grenades at each other after an on-field scrum, and last week Maddon tweaked Valentine after the Sox manager gratuitously pulled him into a defense of his later-than-usual arrival at a game in Oakland.

The Sox have taken seven of 12 games from the Rays this season, and whatever you might think of the veracity of the Sox's sellout streak, there's no disputing that the Rays rank last in attendance in the American League. That's just one more reason Sox fans might celebrate the Rays' demise. After all, who's more deserving?