BOSTON – Signs of their fate are all around them.

The health-challenged Boston Red Sox have placed extra lockers in their clubhouse. They normally are used when rosters expand in September, but are needed now for all the players filling in for the injured.

And in the crowded clubhouse, players and media spread out to make room for Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek as they navigate through with their crutches.

And then there is the lineup card.

Look at the 10 players who started Thursday night’s game, and you can name five who likely won’t be called upon in the heat of the pennant race.

Utility players Eric Patterson and Bill Hall, catcher Kevin Cash, outfielder Daniel Nava

And pitcher Tim Wakefield.

The thought of Boston counting on Wakefield, when every game counts in this race against the Yankees and Rays, is discomforting at best.

Thursday’s effort, allowing seven runs (six earned) over two-plus innings, was beyond discomfort.

I’m more confident depending on a player like Nava, who is still hitting .305 after 25 games following his call-up.

But when Jeremy Hermida comes back, as soon as next week after stints with the Portland Sea Dogs and Pawtucket, Nava might be optioned back to Triple-A.

Wakefield cannot go to Pawtucket, but he can’t stay in the rotation. When Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett return, maybe both by next week, then Wakefield will have to go to the bullpen, unless he develops a phantom injury and joins the multitudes on the disabled list.

Now, before we dump all over Wakefield, 44, we applaud him for his efforts this year (102 innings, third behind Jon Lester and John Lackey) and his achievements in Boston (a 178-158 career record).

But seniority and loyalty cannot keep Wakefield in the rotation, just like it did nothing for Mike Lowell, who went from starting third baseman to Limbo resident.

It is true that Wakefield’s knuckleball can be downright dominant, like in his eight-inning shutout effort in Philadelphia.

Heck, Wakefield almost started Thursday’s game with two strikeouts, until it was ruled that a dropped third strike against Michael Young was actually a foul ball.

Young then singled to left, the first of six straight hits, culminating in Bengie Molina’s two-run homer. In a snap, Boston was down 6-0.

“Hard to spot a team six a tough way to play,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said.

And now Boston is 51/2 games behind the Yankees and 31/2 behind the Rays in the American League East.

To make a run, Boston will need starting pitching.

Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka have not been stellar, but they have kept Boston in games and have a combined 15-8 record.

Lester (11-3) is the ace, and Buchholz (10-4) is a close second.

Buchholz likely will return next Wednesday, which will send Felix Doubront back to the minors.

When Beckett is ready, that should spell the end of Wakefield as a starter.

Wakefield is 3-8 with a 5.65 ERA. And traditionally this is when he’s strong. He usually fades down the stretch and has been terrible recently in the postseason.

Since 2003, Wakefield is 1-3 with a 9.87 ERA in seven playoff outings. That one win was the result of three memorable shutout innings of relief in Game 5 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, a 5-4, 14-inning victory over New York.

So maybe the bullpen is where Wakefield can be most effective.

In the pen, Wakefield will stew, like he did earlier this year.

But except for allowing five runs in his first relief effort, Wakefield was OK in his other three appearances out of the bullpen. In those three games, all against the Yankees, Wakefield allowed three hits and one run over 61/3 innings.

But it was a different story Thursday. Wakefield said pitching coach John Farrell told him while warming up, “I had some of the best stuff I’ve had all year.”

But that soon fell apart.

“I didn’t have the depth or the movement on the pitch to get them out,” Wakefield said.

“I’m as dumbfounded as anybody else. I just didn’t have it tonight.”

Boston is overcoming enough adversity. It cannot afford Wakefield as a starter.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

[email protected]