Theo Epstein says 'just go do it'

While David Ortiz says it's time to panic, Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein sees the next 17 days as an opportunity.

"Hell, yeah, you've got to panic," Ortiz said after the Red Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night for their fifth straight defeat and 10th in 13 games.

Boston has fallen 3½ games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East and are only 3½ games ahead of the hard-charging Rays for the wild card.

"We have an opportunity ahead of us to play good baseball for two and a half weeks and ride that momentum to the postseason," Epstein said Monday on WEEI sports radio. "If we don't do it, we don't deserve to be there. We have to prove that we are the team that had the best record in baseball for four-plus months, not the team that started 2-10 or has played 3-10 most recently. That's on us. We have to go out and do it."

Epstein didn't discount the snowball effect of a slump, having watched his team endure a disappointing start to the season in April and now this September slide. In reflecting on a 1-6 road trip, Epstein said the team's struggles can be contagious.

"We're not getting very good starting pitching right now," Epstein said on WEEI. "Our bullpen is in a downturn. We have some guys who are not having the kind of at-bats they've had over the course of the season. We're not playing great defense. We're making some mistakes once the ball is in play. A little bit of everything has contributed to it.

"When you have a run of bad starting pitching it does tax the bullpen. There's a little bit of an effect on the offense as well. These guys go to bat early in the game feeling like they're down 5-0. Sometimes they are, sometimes it just feels that way. Especially with our kind of approach where you need to be patient, you need to have good at-bats and have the other guy drive you in, kind of a group offense mentality, it's hard to have that kind of at-bats when you feel like you have to put a crooked number on the board all the time.

"... There's momentum when you're playing well -- we won two out of every three games for about four months, and there's a contagiousness to that -- and (when you're struggling) you're expecting things to go poorly."

One of the starters who has struggled badly is John Lackey, who is 6-4 in the second half but with a 5.65 ERA in that span and 6.30 ERA overall.

"If it were that easy to pinpoint, obviously we would have made an adjustment by now," Epstein said to WEEI. "It's a continual struggle to pinpoint exactly what's going on with him and make adjustments so he can help us."

The team's recent slide can at least in part be blamed on injuries. Between Josh Beckett going down with an ankle injury, Kevin Youkilis' hip injury and sports hernia, J.D. Drew's setback and Clay Buchholz's continued absence, the Red Sox are thin in some key places.

"We are beat up. These aren't imaginary injuries," Epstein said on WEEI. "These players have played their tails off for most of the season. We've got a lot of players right now who are hurt. ... There's no lack of desire or lack of urgency out there. It's a matter of legitimate injuries that we need to try to get them back from as soon as possible."

To that end, Beckett, who has been working his way back from a sprained ankle, will throw off a mound Monday.

"The best-case scenario for Beckett, if all goes well today, would indicate a pretty quick return to the rotation," Epstein said. "And (Erik) Bedard (lat strain) hopefully soon after that. That will be a big boost. The starting pitcher does mater."

Buchholz has been rehabbing a back injury.

"We laid out a timetable about four weeks ago that would represent a best-case scenario," Epstein said. "And so far he's exceeded every goal, it has been the best case scenario. Knock on wood it will continue to be so. He hasn't been off a mound yet, which is a big step, so it's hard to get too excited, because that's what's slowed him down in the past. Once he gets past that hurdle then we can start to get a little excited he can help us."

Any chance he starts in the playoffs? Epstein seemed to indicate that was unlikely.

"It's not going to be in lengthy outings. He doesn't have time certainly in the regular season to get stretched out for any kind of significantly long outing."

Epstein also revealed that Drew has a broken finger, not just a sprain.

"J.D. has a broken finger, for what's that worth," he said. "He has an avulsion fracture of his middle finger. It needs to heal. Hopefully he can come back. We haven't ruled anything out with him."

Part of the reason Epstein is confident the Red Sox can turn it around in time is because they've done it before. The Red Sox were an easy target after starting the season so poorly, but they turned it around to rise from last to the best record in the American League.

"The thing we have going for us here, beyond the fact that we're a really good team, is that we've pulled ourselves out of this before," Epstein said to the radio station. "April was no walk in the park. You remember what that was like. That was not fun. This team did a great job pulling itself out of that. We certainly can do it again and we have to. We've been punched in the mouth here a little bit. It's how we respond that matters."

Epstein insisted the Red Sox never took a playoff spot for granted, even when they were leading the division or had a double-digit edge over the Rays in the wild-card race. He said the Red Sox "never erased the Rays from our radar" and is thankful his team's postseason fate is in its own hands.

"I'm glad we play the Rays four times coming up (Sept. 15-18 at Fenway)," Epstein said. "If we can't right the ship against these guys, if we can't do what we need to do, we probably don't deserve to get into the postseason."