BOSTON – The pitching is in shambles. The hitting is spotty. And the defense?

The Boston Red Sox are dropping the ball there, too.

In less than three weeks, they’ve bumbled their way from a smooth ride to the playoffs to a trip toward a spot on the list of historic collapses. And somehow during their wacky September, they still have the inside track on a postseason berth.

“I’ve been here, what, nine years? We’ve never collapsed that bad,” said David Ortiz, his room-brightening smile replaced by a stare. “We’ve been through tough times, (but) it’s bad. No matter what we do, things are going to be bad.”

The freefall began Sept. 4 when the Red Sox began play with a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL wild-card race — more like a runaway at the time — and a half-game deficit in the AL East standings behind the New York Yankees.

Since then they are 4-14. After Thursday’s games, they lead the Rays by two games and the Los Angeles Angels by 3 games for the wild-card spot and are 7½ games behind the Yankees, who clinched the division title Wednesday night.

It would have been worse if the Rays hadn’t lost a doubleheader to the Yankees while the Red Sox were falling to Baltimore 6-4. They got a break from the misery Thursday with a day off while the Rays and Angels played. That will leave each contender with six games remaining.

But the Red Sox must go into Yankee Stadium for the start of a three-game series tonight before finishing with three in Baltimore.

“Nobody’s going to lay down for us. Nobody’s going to hand us any wins,” captain and catcher Jason Varitek said. “We’ve got to go out there and get it on our own.”

A few wins over the Yankees should quiet comparisons to the New York Mets’ collapse of 2007 when they missed the playoffs, squandering a seven-game lead by going 5-12 in their last 17 games.

“We can play better,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “That’s basically it.”

Before the latest loss, pitcher Tim Wakefield snuck a peak over his shoulder at the clubhouse television as he walked toward the field, glove in hand. It was the ninth inning of the Yankees’ 4-2 win over the Rays in the opener of the doubleheader.

The TV was off after Boston coughed up a late lead for the second straight day, walking back to the clubhouse to loud boos from home fans one day after the team passed 3 million in attendance. At the time the Yankees were minutes from another 4-2 win.

“We have to take care of ourselves and then from there we’ll worry about what happens,” Varitek said, “but we can control what we do by playing good baseball.”

The Red Sox reject observations they lack an inner fire.

“Completely asinine,” closer Jonathan Papelbon said.

They say they’re not pressing.

“I don’t see it,” Ortiz said.

But it’s indisputable that the Red Sox are playing bad baseball.

“You have a day off to regroup,” Manager Terry Francona said. “We certainly haven’t made it easy for ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t get where we want to go.

“But we have our work cut out.”

During the 4-14 slide, they have just 54 runs in the losses, the same number as in the wins. The pitchers have an ERA of 5.81, starters have gone more than five innings in only six of the 18 games, and fielders have made 22 errors to just 10 for opponents.

Four of Boston’s five best pitchers — Josh Beckett, Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Papelbon — couldn’t protect leads in the past two games. The other member of that group, Jon Lester, hopes to reverse a two-game slide tonight. In those starts he allowed eight runs on 13 hits in 11 innings.

“I’m still very confident this team will find a way to get to the playoffs,” left fielder Carl Crawford said. “I know it looks bad but in some form or another, I think we’ll get it together and find a way.”

“Right now,” Ortiz said, “it’s depressing.”