Red Sox feel presence of Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Yogi Berra, a product of the Italian "Hill" section in St. Louis, and David Ortiz, son of the barrios of Santo Domingo, did not grow up speaking the same language.

Or maybe they did.

Sunday afternoon, Ortiz came up with the kind of line that made Berra famous when asked about the free-falling Red Sox.

"It seems like everybody is in a funk at once," Ortiz said. "Nobody is to blame but everybody."

With the finish line in sight, the Red Sox have veered sharply off course, their 9-1 loss Sunday afternoon to the Rays breathing new life into Tampa Bay, which shaved three games off Boston's lead in the wild card with a sweep at the Trop.

With 16 games to be played (the Rays have 17), the Sox's lead in the wild card is down to 3½ games. Five straight losses, and they're now as close to third place as to first after the Yankees beat the Angels in Anaheim on Sunday.

Three and a half games. That's a margin that should be familiar to Sox fans of a certain age. In 1978, the Sox were down by 3½ to the Yankees with eight games to play and won all eight to finish the regular season in a dead heat. The Rays have more than twice as many games to make up that difference.

But the Sox aren't the type of team to panic, right, Papi?

"At this point you panic -- hell, yeah," Ortiz said. "You've got to panic at this point, but you're not going to do anything by panicking, but [by] playing better. You got these guys breathing on our neck."

And how did that happen? Well, the Sox come home with just one win in seven games on a two-domed trip that began with three losses in four games in Toronto and ended here with their best healthy pitcher, Jon Lester, expelled after just four innings and 111 pitches Sunday afternoon.

"Too many pitches," said Lester, who threw 43 pitches in the first inning, when he gave up more runs (three) than he had in any of his previous five starts. He gave up a triple to Johnny Damon and a double to Sean Rodriguez for a fourth run in the third. "I didn't have anything today. I had no command of one pitch. I didn't have a pitch that could get me back in counts. One of those days. I picked the wrong time to have one of these."

The Sox are just 2-9 in September. Their starting pitcher failed to go more than five innings for the eighth time in 10 games, the bullpen is overtaxed, the offense has been erratic and suddenly the mathematical improbabilities of them missing the playoffs don't look so improbable anymore, not when Tampa Bay is due in Boston for four more games against the Sox starting Thursday.

Before that, there are two games to be played at home against the Blue Jays, with Tim Wakefield, who hasn't won since July 24, and John Lackey, whose bloated 6.30 ERA is the worst in baseball (among ERA qualifiers), due to pitch. To the barricades, indeed.

"I don't think it's just one thing," Lester said. "I think it's a combination of everything. Obviously we didn't pitch well this series, but I don't think anyone in this club will point a finger at the offense, defense, rotation. The responsibility falls on everyone in this clubhouse."

Well, you might be inclined to give a bigger share to Matt Albers, the reliever who on Wake-for-200 Night in Toronto gave up a bases-loaded double that cleared the bases, and on Sunday afternoon came in with the bases loaded again and did that one better, giving up a grand slam to B.J. Upton that busted this one open.

"With Upton, I worked behind 2 and 0, which was key in that situation," Albers said. "I'm thinking I've got to throw a strike. I was trying to go down on it and it leaked back over the middle. He's sitting on a 2-and- 0 heater down the middle and he got it."

Even the computer simulators are taking notice. When this series started, the Sox were given a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs, and the Rays 2 percent, by coolstandings.com. By Sunday night, the Sox were rated at a still-should-be-going 88.2 percent, with the Rays at 11.4 percent.

"We're kind of in a fight right now," said Terry Francona, whose outlook will brighten considerably if Josh Beckett, who is scheduled to throw off a mound to test his ankle Monday, is ready to pitch by the weekend. "We know that. It's not real pretty. The last thing those guys need to see is us coming in here with our tails between our legs. That's not going to help."

Neither will a team meeting, Ortiz said.

"I mean, nobody's happy the way things are going right now," he said. "You can see that around."

But they don't need to convene a session to talk about it, either.

"We don't need no team meeting," he said. "Everybody knows what to do here to win games. That's what we've got to do, just come in and play the game the way we're supposed to, and the rest of it will be taken care of."

They need to start playing, in other words, like the Rays have been playing for the past month (22-10, .687). The Rays, winners of seven of their past eight, tied a season high at home with their nine runs Sunday, and starter James Shields came within two outs of his 12th complete game.

"We're back in the hunt," Shields said. "They know we are right behind them."

The Rays, Ortiz said, played like they had no pressure on them. "That made a huge difference," he said.

And the Sox? Besides not pitching all weekend, they made throws to the wrong base from the outfield on Saturday, committed two errors on Sunday and Mike Aviles was picked off first with the Sox down by three.

"If we play better, we're going to win," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We're a pretty darn good team. We just hit a pretty tough patch."

And if they don't play better?

"If we don't, we're going to go home," he said. "That's basically it. If we don't play well, we're going home."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.