The Red Sox awoke in Baltimore this morning convinced they are still alive in the AL wild-card race.

With 31 games remaining, they are not near mathematical elimination. At least not yet.

They will, however, need significant help from the Rays or Yankees. Problem is, those are baseball’s top two teams and neither has shown signs of slipping.

The Sox weekend in Tampa Bay went much like their season. They gave it a valiant battle, getting contributions from players you’d never expect to be part of a playoff race.

When Daniel Nava and Yamaico Navarro drive in two of your three runs Sunday night, you have to wonder how this could possibly be a playoff contender this late in the season.

And, still, it looked like they might do it. After a thrilling 3-1 win Friday night, the Sox held the lead for most of Saturday night’s game. But J.D. Drew caught a foul ball he should’ve let drop, and Clay Buchholz stayed in too long, and the Sox dropped a gut-wrenching 10-inning loss.

Then came Sunday, and a 3-1 lead in the sixth, but John Lackey continued his underwhelming first season in a Red Sox uniform with a loss.

Nine of his last 10 batters reached base, and by the time he left the Sox were trailing by a run and there were two runners on base.

Lackey has been a microcosm of the 2010 Red Sox. Not quite good enough.

Time will tell if he’ll be able to adjust to pitching in Boston, but how do you consider the five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed this off-season a success?

Lackey hasn’t won many friends in Red Sox Nation with his pitching (a 4.60 ERA) or his comments after games. Every fifth day, he tells us how well he pitched — even when he was unable to protect a lead. Leading 3-1 on Sunday night, he gave up five runs in 61/3 innings. Not an ace-like performance. Still, he insisted he was performing well.

“Probably threw the ball as good as I’ve thrown the ball in years,” Lackey told reporters in St. Pete after the game.

There will be serious work for the Sox front office in the months ahead, but even with a disappointing season from Lackey the work doesn’t begin with the starting rotation. That’s one of the team’s biggest strengths.

Adrian Beltre, their best offensive player this season, is a free agent and will be looking for a big contract. Victor Martinez, their starting catcher and one of their most consistent hitters, will also hit the open market. A big decision needs to be made on David Ortiz, who has a club option for 2011 in his contract.

And there is the bullpen. There were only two consistently dependable arms out there this season.

Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon were solid all year (although Manager Terry Francona opted not to go with the 1-2 punch on Saturday night), but it was a crapshoot after them.

The Red Sox must decide if they will keep Papelbon next season – his final year under the team’s control – or see what they can get for him in a trade now. If they go that route, there will be a need for more bullpen help, which is never easy to find.

These are issues we will be discussing at great length this offseason. After a losing weekend in St. Pete, that offseason is suddenly feeling a lot closer.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.