Rapid Reaction: Rays 9, Red Sox 1

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- No need to wait for the official proclamation from Mayor Menino or Governor Patrick.

Welcome to "Freefall September,'' with no apparent end in sight. Not when Tim Wakefield, who hasn't won since July 24, and John Lackey, owner of the majors' most bloated ERA, are the next two starting pitchers scheduled to be summoned to the barricades to stop a Red Sox slide that reached five losses in a row and nine of 11 this month Sunday in a 9-1 shellacking by the Tampa Bay Rays.

As one tweeter noted, no one would be surprised if Red Sox manager Terry Francona did his best Jim Mora impression, scrunched his face, and bellowed, "Playoffs? Playoffs?"

Jon Lester was the man entrusted to restore sanity Sunday afternoon to this playoff race that wasn't a race at all until the Rays swept the Sox three straight here this weekend, trimming the Sox advantage for the wild card to 3 1/2 games with 16 games to play.

Instead, Lester labored through a 43-pitch, three-run first inning, gave up another run on back-to-back extra-base hits (Johnny Damon triple, Sean Rodriguez double) in the third, and was gone by the fourth after throwing a mind-numbing 111 pitches. In that time, Lester, who had not allowed more than a run in any of his previous five starts, gave up eight hits, matching the most he has allowed in any start since May 20, when he gave up a dozen to the White Sox.

The Rays ran up Lester's pitch count not only by drawing three walks and taking pitches, but by fouling off 28 pitches as opposed to swinging and missing just 10 times.

With Lester, the Sox thought they finally had a pitcher they could cound on to go deep into the game. Instead, Lester added to a stretch in which a Boston starter has failed to get past the fifth inning eight times in the last 10 games.

The Sox had rallied on Saturday with three home runs, two in the ninth, to extend the Rays to extra innings before falling in 11, 6-5. Any notion they might come back again Sunday evaporated when Matt Albers entered with the bases loaded and gave up a grand slam to B.J. Upton, one of four hits by one half of the first brother act to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in the same season.

Meanwhile, Rays starter James Shields came within two outs of his 12th complete game, holding the Sox to a single run on seven hits. Marco Scutaro homered in the third, his sixth of the season, for Boston's only run. The Sox subsequently loaded the bases in the inning with one out, but Shields retired David Ortiz on a shallow fly and Josh Reddick on a pop out, and the Sox managed just three singles off him thereafter.

By the end of the afternoon, Nate Spears, Conor Jackson and Ryan Lavarnway were all in the game, Francona giving his regulars a head start on packing for what was certain to be an uncomfortable trip back to Boston.

The Sox play Toronto on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Rays travel to Baltimore for three against the Orioles before heading to Boston for four more games against the Sox in Fenway Park. For the Sox, what was supposed to feel like playing out the string now looks like coming to the end of their rope.