Wednesday July 04, 2012 | 05:33 AM

The Boston Red Sox reached the halfway mark (81 games) in their season, following another walk-off loss on the road. They are in fourth place in the American League East, with a 42-49 record, 6.5 games behind the division leading Yankees (48-32), and one game ahead of last-place Toronto.

Can the Red Sox improve on that and challenge for the division title, or even a playoff spot? The answer to that is another question: Can they pitch better?

While this terrible road trip through Seattle and Oakland is featuring slumping bats and spotty defense, pitching is the key. And Boston is currently 10th in the AL in ERA (4.12).

Speaking of pitching, the top Red Sox minor league arms are encountering struggles.

Anthony Ranaudo, once considered the No. 1 pitching prospect, has not gone past the third inning in three of his last four starts, including Tuesday. His fastball Tuesday night was between 88 and 90 m.p.h.

“Probably just a little dead arm from finally getting back on a five-day routine.” Ranaudo said in today’s Press Herald story.

As usual, the stand-up Ranaudo said he has to learn to pitch better even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

Another top prospect, Salem starter Matt Barnes, had been cruising this year until his last two starts. He gave up three runs in one inning in his previous, short start. On Tuesday, Barnes allowed a season-high six runs, on six hits and two walks, over 3 2/3 innings.

The big story in Portland Tuesday night was the appearance of rehabbing outfielder Carl Crawford. He went 1-for-2 with two walks (the same as rehabbing outfielder Scott Podsednik in Pawtucket).

Portland’s outfield has Crawford and prospects Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz. But the best-hitting outfielder Tuesday was Jeremy Hazelbaker, who served as the DH. After going 2-for-4 Tuesday, Hazelbaker is batting .361 (13-of-36) over his last nine games.

Reliever Josh Fields (3.45) had his seventh straight scoreless outing.

Juan Carlos Linares, who was recently promoted to Pawtucket, had only one hit in his previous eight games. He went 3-for-4 Tuesday.

The Sea Dogs play in Manchester, N.H. tonight. Jacoby Ellsbury is expected to join Crawford in a Portland uniform.


About this Blog

Kevin Thomas covers baseball and basketball for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He wisely moved to Maine in 1994 after working for the St. Petersburg Times. He is married to Nancy and they have nine children.

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