September 13, 2011

Tom Caron: It's beginning to feel like that disaster of '78

Beginning tonight, the Sox will try to regroup at home following their worst trip since the start of the season.

By TOM CARON

The major league season has certainly gotten interesting. In fact, it's gotten too interesting for most Red Sox fans.

On Sept. 3, the Sox had a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the wild-card race.

Today that lead has been reduced to a mere three games.

Beginning tonight, the Sox will try to regroup at home following their worst trip since the start of the season.

They returned home with a 1-6 record after losing 3 of 4 in Toronto and all three games at Tropicana Field.

They weren't just swept by the Rays, they were embarrassed by a young team that pitched better, hit better, and played with much more urgency than a Red Sox team that thought it was counting down the days until the playoffs returned to Boston.

Of course, that playoff appearance is very much in doubt. The Red Sox rotation is in shambles. Josh Beckett is still days away from making his next start; Erik Bedard could be even further away.

The Sox used the likes of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield on the trip. The three are winless in their last 12 starts combined.

It's feeling an awful lot like 1978, the collapse by which all other Red Sox disasters are measured.

In '78, the Sox woke up with a 61/2-game lead on Sept. 1. They lost 13 of the next 16 games, and were 31/2 games back of the New York Yankees by Sept. 16.

They managed to turn it back around in the final two weeks of the season, going 12-3 down the stretch to force a one-game playoff with New York. Yet they never fully recovered from that early September swoon, losing that 163rd game of the season when Bucky Bleeping Dent drilled one into the Green Monster.

The Sox won 99 games in 1978 -- the most wins in a regular season over the past 65 years -- yet still didn't go to the postseason.

"I think we hit .171 as a team during that series with the Yankees," said the 1978 MVP, Jim Rice, "but even though we may have lost those games we didn't play like this."

"This" refers to the sloppy play Rice watched alongside me over the weekend while serving as a NESN studio analyst.

Sox outfielders missed cutoff men, outfielders made errors, pitchers missed spots and hitters missed opportunities to get runners in from third with one out.

"These guys have got to get back to playing small ball," said Rice. "In the third inning (Sunday), they had a man on third with one out. They needed to drive the ball deep enough to get a run in. They didn't do it either time. They're not going very deep if they keep that up."

Rice said the Sox of '78 were able to turn it around down the stretch by going back to fundamentals. They won 12 of the final 15 to catch the Yankees. These Red Sox aren't that desperate yet. Despite their swoon, they are still in the driver's seat with the wild-card lead.

They've got 16 games left to try to stop this slide and get their house in order before the playoffs. If they don't show a little urgency, they'll be watching those playoffs at home with the rest of us.

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.

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