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Red Sox need (gulp) Yankee help to avoid unthinkable

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The Red Sox are 6-12 vs. the Rays this season, outscored 96-57 by the AL East's third-place team. (Getty Images)  
The Red Sox are 6-12 vs. the Rays this season, outscored 96-57 by the AL East's third-place team. (Getty Images)  

BOSTON -- Terry Francona looked at me funny, and frankly, I don't blame the Red Sox manager.

My question, about how the Red Sox view this week's Rays-Yankees series, was awkwardly worded. Besides, the answer was obvious.

Yes, of course, the Red Sox are looking for help from their most bitter rivals. Begging for help, if you want to know the truth.

Counting on help, because the alternatives are either improbable or unthinkable.

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Improbable: that this Red Sox team, which has now nearly matched its 2-10 start to the season by going 2-9 in its past 11 games, will somehow start winning and make what the Rays do the rest of the way irrelevant.

Unthinkable: that this Red Sox team, which was built to be the best team in baseball and spent much of the summer looking like one of the two or three best teams in baseball, will miss the playoffs.

Even with an 8-5 loss Sunday at Fenway, even with this weekend's three losses to the Rays in four games, even with six head-to-head losses in seven games over the past two weekends, the Red Sox lead the American League wild-card race by two games with 10 games to play, and with the schedule in their favor.

The Red Sox should be OK ... except it doesn't feel that way anymore.

The Red Sox still have a 90 percent chance of getting to the playoffs, according to the computers at CoolStandings.com. They have a better chance of catching the first-place Yankees (8.4 percent) than of falling behind the third-place Rays (8 percent).

That's what the computers say. But what do your eyes tell you?

If you watched the $164 million Red Sox against the $42 million Rays this weekend, you came away convinced Tampa Bay not only has the hotter team, but the better one.

You came away convinced the Yankees and Tigers and Rangers ought to be hoping the Red Sox hold on in the wild-card race, because the Rays are more dangerous.

"The good thing is, if we hold off Tampa Bay, we won't see them in the playoffs," said Francona, whose team went 6-12 this year against the Rays, getting outscored 96-57 (including 46-22 the past two weekends).

The bad thing? There's now a real chance Boston won't hold off Tampa Bay.

Yes, the Red Sox lead by two with 10 games to play. If they go even 6-4, the Rays would need to win eight of the 10 they have left merely to force a one-game playoff.

Yes, the schedule favors Boston, which has seven games against the Orioles and three vs. the Yankees. The Rays will face the Yankees seven more times, and the Blue Jays for three.

But here's what doesn't favor the Red Sox: their starting pitchers in a day-night doubleheader Monday against the Orioles are Kyle Weiland and John Lackey.

"That's two losses," one rival scout said Sunday.

Their starting pitcher Tuesday will be Erik Bedard, who might or might not be healthy.

Their third baseman and cleanup hitter, Kevin Youkilis, absolutely isn't healthy. Their first baseman and third-place hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, has a shoulder issue that might have helped lead to his weakened weekend performance (0 for 12, six strikeouts).

But this isn't all about injuries -- this Red Sox team hasn't been brought down by health the way last year's team was.

This is about a free-agent outfielder (Carl Crawford) going so bad that Francona felt it was right to sit him Sunday in one of the biggest games of the season. It's about a front office that not only seems to have whiffed on Crawford, but 2) acquired only the unreliable Bedard at the July 31 deadline and 3) never fully addressed the need for another big right-handed bat.

And yes, it's about a Rays team that deserves tons of credit, no matter what happens the rest of the way.

For all the Red Sox problems, Boston's record entering these final 10 games of the season is 87-65. The Red Sox are only 1½ games worse than the Tigers, who were pouring champagne this weekend in Oakland, and only a half-game worse than the Rangers, who hold a much more comfortable lead in the American League West.

Without the Rays playing so well, the Red Sox's poor September would barely get noticed outside of New England. Without the Rays playing so well, the Red Sox clubhouse wouldn't have been nearly as quiet as it was late Sunday afternoon.

"We've got a great team," said Dustin Pedroia, who unlike some of his teammates was willing to speak up. "We're just not playing very well. We've got to figure it out."

Francona tried to express confidence that they will.

"Knowing the guys in this clubhouse, we'll meet this challenge," he said. "And it'll make us stronger."

That's fine, except the best way for the Red Sox to meet this challenge right now will be to root very hard for the Yankees to knock off the Rays this week.

"Yeah, we hope [the Rays] lose," Francona said, in answer to my poor question. "We need to control what we can control. Saying that, I hope they lose."

For the Red Sox, the alternatives are indeed unthinkable.

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