Commentary

Problems piling up

Swept by lowly Orioles, Red Sox have no answers as they fall further behind

Updated: May 3, 2010, 6:11 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BALTIMORE -- Terry Francona wouldn't have any explaining to do to his bosses after the Red Sox returned home Sunday night.

John W. Henry was not on the premises -- he had a prior engagement this weekend with billionaire Warren Buffett -- but both CEO Larry Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein were here. In the ballpark Lucchino built and where Epstein's baseball career was launched, their reeling baseball team was humbled in a three-game sweep by the Baltimore Orioles.

And for those inclined to believe that the Sox hit bottom in Camden Yards, losing their fourth straight game to a team that is 4-2 against Boston, 3-16 against the rest of the American League, don't be so sure.

A team that was missing three outfielders Sunday -- Jacoby Ellsbury (ribs), Mike Cameron (abdominal tear) and Jeremy Hermida (quadriceps) -- also lost first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who was a late scratch with a sore left groin.

Youkilis told Francona he hoped to be back in the lineup Monday night, when the Sox open a four-game series against the Los Angeles Angels, but Youkilis is scheduled to be evaluated by the team's medical staff and his return remains uncertain.

Could Youkilis play Monday night? "I hope so," Francona said.

In his absence, Francona did some shuffling, sliding Mike Lowell into the cleanup spot and putting Adrian Beltre back in the lineup after previously electing to give the third baseman the day off. Lowell made his major league debut at first base, which went uneventfully until closer Jonathan Papelbon threw wildly on an attempted pickoff in the 10th, setting the stage for Ty Wigginton's game-winning double in Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Orioles.

But while Lowell held his own defensively, he has rarely looked as feeble at the plate as he did Sunday, striking out twice and tapping out twice in front of the plate, the two grounders travelling a combined total of no more than 30 feet.

Epstein Things haven't really changed. We talked about this last week. We're still playing bad baseball. Unintelligent, undisciplined, uninspired baseball. It's got to change. It either changes itself or we have to do something to change it.

-- Theo Epstein to the Boston Herald

Meanwhile, DH David Ortiz, coming off a two-homer game that raised hopes he might be coming out of a month-long funk, instead reverted to form, striking out and popping out twice to third.

The Red Sox at their weakest? It had to be after J.D. Drew opened the ninth inning with a base hit to put the potential winning run on base. Lowell, Ortiz and Beltre all struck out against Orioles reliever Will Ohman. The left-hander has thrown 239 1/3 innings in relief over eight seasons in the big leagues. Until Sunday, he had struck out three in an inning only once in his career, and that was in 2001. On Sunday, the Sox made his slider look like it was being thrown by Steve Carlton or Steve Avery.

The Sox were held to three runs or fewer for the 10th time this season, or 40 percent of their 25 games. They're 2-8 in those contests, and 1-5 in extra innings, their six overtime games the most in big league baseball and most they've played this early in a season since 1943.

Three players -- Dustin Pedroia (18), Youkilis (14) and Drew (14), who hit his third home run of the weekend Sunday -- have combined for 46 of the team's 108 RBIs, or 43 percent of the total.

Players the Sox were counting on being run producers?

•  Victor Martinez, who flied out as a pinch hitter Sunday, has just seven RBIs, three in the past 17 games. He drove in two runs Saturday, his first multi-RBI game since the second game of the season.

•  Beltre is batting .330, but has four RBIs in his past 18 games. He is batting .368 (7-for-19) in what is described as late and close situations, but those seven hits have produced one RBI. Beltre has yet to hit a home run, and in 41 at-bats at Fenway Park has just one extra-base hit, a double.

[+] EnlargeOrtiz
AP Photo/Gail BurtonA day after hitting two homers, David Ortiz went 0-for-3 and is hitting .159 on the season.

•  Lowell as an irregular has just one home run and four RBIs in 36 at-bats.

•  Ortiz, also an irregular, has three home runs and six RBIs. His only multi-RBI game came Saturday night, with his two solo home runs.

There are times when the Sox look old. Sunday was one of them, and not just when Ohman punched out the side. Marco Scutaro and Pedroia opened the game by reaching base, but Scutaro was cut down at third by backup Orioles catcher Craig Tatum at the front end of a double steal.

Then, in the eighth, Jason Varitek tried to score from second with two outs on a single to left by Pedroia. Third-base coach Tim Bogar started to apply the brakes, then urged Varitek on. A moped would have had a better shot to win the Indy 500. The 38-year-old Varitek was out by 20 feet, and so spent that trying to run over Tatum was out of the question.

"I actually wasn't running fast enough to get there," Varitek said. "I gave it what I had. I had a good turn, a good jump, but the wheels weren't quite moving."

Second-guess Bogar? Not a chance by Varitek. Nor by Francona. "I would have sent him, too," the manager said, and given the problem the Sox have scoring runs, can you really blame the Sox for gambling that the Orioles would find a way to botch the play?

As for Varitek angling for a collision with Tatum?

"I didn't think I had enough steam," Varitek said. "If I tried to run him over, I didn't think I had anything to put into it, to be honest with you."

Francona could have put in Bill Hall to run for Varitek -- Hall entered the game to play left in the bottom of the eighth -- but the manager said he wanted to keep Varitek, who hit his fifth home run, behind the plate.

And so the Sox limp home, their only consolation coming from signs that the starting pitching is coming around. Clay Buchholz, who goes Monday, allowed a run in eight innings in his last start at Toronto. Jon Lester held the Blue Jays to a hit in seven scoreless innings. John Lackey gave up two earned runs Friday night. Josh Beckett gave up two earned runs in seven innings Sunday.

"It's frustrating," Beckett said. "You come in here and try to win every series, and you get swept. That's backwards from what we're trying to do."

The absence of leadoff man Ellsbury has had a major impact on the Sox, one scout said Sunday, just as the Phillies losing Jimmy Rollins hindered that club (at least until this weekend, when Philadelphia scored in double figures in back-to-back wins against the Mets). Even as Ellsbury and Cameron have both increased activity, neither is within a few days of returning, especially since a rehab assignment will almost certainly be required before they're activated. "I want to make sure," Cameron said, "that when I come back, I don't do something that keeps me from playing the rest of the summer."

In the meantime, however, the Sox continue to lose ground to both the Rays and Yankees, teams too good to give this much of a head start. Boston currently sits seven games behind Tampa Bay, 5½ behind New York and even 1½ games in back of Toronto.

Changes? It's not as if the Sox can turn over a $170 million roster, although Epstein told the Boston Herald this can't continue.

"Things haven't really changed," Epstein said. "We talked about this last week. We're still playing bad baseball. Unintelligent, undisciplined, uninspired baseball. It's got to change.

"It either changes itself or we have to do something to change it."

Maybe Buffett, who has experience with big-money outfits having problems, had a couple of ideas. In the meantime, it falls upon Francona to find a solution.

"It wasn't a lot of fun," Francona said of the weekend. "You show up to win and we didn't. We're going to have to regroup in a hurry and figure it out."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE