BOSTON – Normally the sign that a team has backed away from the pennant chase is a deluge of rookies in the lineup.

In the Boston Red Sox’s case, they brought 44-year-old Tim Wakefield out of the bullpen mothballs to make a start.

Wakefield started on Aug. 25, but that was an emergency stint with Daisuke Matsuzaka’s back acting up.

This time the Red Sox had ace-at-the-moment Clay Buchholz scheduled to start Wednesday night against the playoff-bound Rays. But after Tuesday night’s 14-5 Tampa Bay romp, the white flag has been raised.

So the Red Sox went with Wakefield, who has a 4-10 record, 5.26 ERA, and a recent assignment as garbage-time innings killer.

The start was beneficial for Wakefield. He earned $575,000 extra in contract incentives ($500,000 for over 130 innings pitched and $75,000 for his 18th start).

For some reason, before the season the Red Sox changed Wakefield’s annual $4 million contract and club option to a two-year deal worth $5 million plus incentives, which Wakefield is earning.

One thought was that with two years, Wakefield could win 18 games and surpass Roger Clemens and Cy Young as the all-time game winner in Boston history.

Only 14 wins to go

That contract didn’t work for Boston. A small problem, for sure, but one of several things that went wrong for the Red Sox in 2010.

There were injuries, Josh Beckett’s health and mediocrity, and the decline of J.D. Drew.

But the biggest black mark goes to the relievers.

With the exception of Daniel Bard’s 1.80 ERA and 0.90 WHIP (walks/hits per inning), trouble has flowed out of the bullpen gate.

Jonathan Papelbon makes $9.35 million but has blown seven saves — the highest number in the American League (Rafael Soriano of Tampa Bay and Mariano Rivera of the Yankees have two each).

The Red Sox bullpen ERA ranks 11th in the league at 4.32.

The plan appeared to be for Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez to take care of the sixth and seventh innings, handing off to Bard and Papelbon. Ramirez (4.46) and Delcarmen (4.70) couldn’t do it and were traded. Okajima (5.30) no longer was trusted in any critical roles.

The surprising survivor in the bullpen is Scott Atchison (3.91), who has improved since bouncing between Pawtucket and Boston.

But Boston never did anything to improve the bullpen. At the trade deadline, General Manager Theo Epstein said there were no good fits for deals.

Meanwhile the Yankees picked up Kerry Wood from the Indians for nearly nothing — a player to be named or cash. The only catch was picking up $1.5 million to $2 million of Woods’ salary.

New York’s bullpen once looked in shambles, except for Rivera. But Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson (Yankees farm products) and Boone Logan (a throw-in from Atlanta in the Javier Vazquez trade) righted their wrongs. Then came Wood to help stabilize matters.

Since July 31, Rivera and those four relievers have allowed a total of nine earned runs (one more than Papelbon).

The Red Sox starters actually carry a better ERA than New York’s (4.10 to 4.15), but the Yankees boast the league’s best bullpen (3.27). The Rays’ bullpen is ranked fourth (3.53).

Next up on the problem list is the obvious — injuries. Look at the top four players in Boston’s normal lineup:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury (.301 average and 70 stolen bases last year) played 18 games.

2. Dustin Pedroia (career .307 hitter and Gold Glove winner) played 75 games.

3. Victor Martinez (switch-hitting clutch hitter) played 107 games so far, but missed a crucial month (late June to late July) when the Red Sox lost ground.

4. Kevin Youkilis (perhaps the team’s MVP year in and year out) played 102 games.

Beckett can be included among the injured, making only 17 starts so far because of his bad back. But when Beckett has pitched, he has been ineffective (4-4, 5.91 ERA and an average of six innings per start).

Beckett averaged 16 wins a year in his previous four seasons with Boston, victories the Red Sox could have used.

With all the injuries, other players have been asked to step in or, to use the cliche, step up. Drew, in the fourth year of his five-year $70 million contract, went backward.

In the previous two years, Drew’s OPS (combined on-base percentage and slugging percentage) was around .920. It is .790 this year.

So many problems. And we didn’t even get into the defense (92 errors, compared to New York’s 59 and Tampa Bay’s 70).

But with those difficulties, Boston remained in contention until recently.

Just think what an effective bullpen could have done.

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

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