BOSTON – This may be a difficult week for passionate, diehard Boston Red Sox fans.

They have to root, root, root for the (gulp) New York Yankees.

The despised team from the Bronx will do Boston a favor if it can accomplish what the Red Sox could not — put away the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tampa Bay beat Boston 8-5 Sunday afternoon, continuing Boston’s downward spiral.

The Red Sox were thought to be on cruise control to the playoffs, another round of October baseball to energize New England.

But then came September. Boston began the month in first place in the American League East Division, ahead of both the Yankees and Rays. In the past 17 games, the Red Sox could have won only nine games and still held first place.

Instead, Boston has a 4-13 record in September. The Yankees lead the East by 4½ games, and Tampa Bay is only two behind Boston in the wild card race (for the last playoff berth).

“We have managed to play some very inconsistent baseball,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “Now we’re going to see if we can not only dig ourselves out of it, but just go play the way we can.”

Today, Boston begins a four-game series against lowly Baltimore. On Tuesday, the Rays begin a four-game series in New York.

So for now, it’s hip, hip hooray for the Bronx Bombers.

“We need to control what we can control,” Francona said. “Saying that, I hope (the Rays) lose.”

With 10 games to go in the season, Boston’s magic number is nine, meaning that if/when the combination of Red Sox wins and Tampa Bay losses equals nine, Boston is in the playoffs.

If Boston wins nine games, it won’t need any help from the Yankees. But the way these Red Sox are playing, all help is welcome.

Sunday’s loss demonstrated much of what is wrong with the Red Sox.

First of all, Tim Wakefield started for Boston. The fact that the Red Sox are relying on the 45-year-old Wakefield in key games is a problem.

Yes, Wakefield is a feel-good story. The old guy collected his 200th win last week. And he got another standing ovation Sunday after he recorded his 3,000th inning as a Boston pitcher.

But milestones mean little in playoff races. Wakefield and his undependable knuckleball should not be in the rotation, but injuries have mandated his presence.

Boston has lost one starting pitcher for the season with injury (Daisuke Matsuzaka) and another (Clay Buchholz) is trying to return from a stress fracture in his back.

Buchholz will be throwing abbreviated “simulated” games Tuesday and Thursday. He might get back into action next week. That could be a huge lift.

The Red Sox lineup Sunday featured Mike Aviles at third base and Conor Jackson in left field.

Who?

Aviles was starting in place of Kevin Youkilis, who has a bad back and a mild hernia. He can still play, but is obviously limited.

Regular left fielder Carl Crawford is not injured, except in the pride department. Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million contract, is batting only .254. And he is horrible against his old team, the Rays, hitting .224, which included a pinch-hit double on Sunday.

Another concern is first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (0-for-4 Sunday). There are reports that his surgically repaired right shoulder is bothering him. Gonzalez isn’t talking about it, and Francona offered an unusual “maybe” when asked if Gonzalez’s shoulder is hampering him.

Problems are piling up. Francona said his players need to look ahead, putting this weekend behind them.

“Now we got to figure out a way to turn it around,” Francona said. “Knowing the guys in that clubhouse like I do, we’ll meet this challenge and it will make us stronger.

“Regardless of what’s happened, we’re not behind.”

Boston does have that two-game lead. And the Rays head to New York.

Red Sox followers will have to tense, close their eyes and force two words from their lips:

Go Yankees.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases