It's hard to imagine that just a few weeks ago the Red Sox were in a position to weigh whether they should go all out in an effort to win the AL East or rest some of their starters down the stretch and settle for the wild card.
After a dismal start to September, they suddenly find themselves struggling to stave off the surging Tampa Bay Rays. Simply settling for the wild card is no longer an option. They'll have to earn it.
Entering Monday's doubleheader with the Orioles, the Red Sox hold a two-game lead in the wild-card race, which is hardly a comfortable cushion. The division, which was once there for the taking, is essentially out of reach. But if the Red Sox want to ensure they get into the postseason via the wild card, they'll need a number of players to step up as they finish off the season.
Carl Crawford has a difficult first season in Boston. With career low offensive numbers virually across the board, the left fielder even went out of his way to apologize to Sox fans, who had such high hopes for him when he inked a seven-year deal during the offseason.
But while the four-time All-Star hasn't performed up to his usual standards, there's still time for him to make an impact. And with some players starting to get a little banged up, most notably Kevin Youkilis, the Sox could certainly use the offensive help. Crawford could be a huge asset toward the bottom of the Sox order if he can right the ship down the stretch.
John Lackey has also performed below his usual standards in an up-and-down 2011. While there's been times when he's pitched well enough to win, evident by his 12 wins, the right-hander has also had some rough outings, which is reflected in his 6.19 ERA and 12 losses entering Monday.
There's been a lot of question marks in the Sox rotation after you get past Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. With Erik Bedard battling knee issues, Lackey could eventually be in line to be the team's No. 3 starter if it advances to the postseason. He'll need to elevate his game, though, to ensure that becomes a distinct possibility.
Daniel Bard, meanwhile, has hit a rough patch after becoming one of the team's more reliable arms. Jonathan Papelbon has enjoy an excellent season, but Bard's role on the team is crucial when it comes to bridging the gap between when the starter leaves the game and the ninth inning. If the rotation continues to struggle, Bard could be leaned on even more heavily.
The Sox have to turn things around in order to get into the postseason and they'll need to do it in a hurry. But if these players break out down the stretch, it could go a long way toward not only preserving the wild card lead, but giving them a bit more confidence heading into October.