Just a week after they were on top of the American League East, the Red Sox have far too many pressing concerns to worry all that much about beating out the Yankees, not the least of which is a three-game deficit in the loss column with 22 games to play.
That's not an insurmountable deficit by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the largest Boston has faced since July 2, and it comes at a time when the club is plugging leaks left and right.
Hours after Terry Francona announced that Erik Bedard would miss a start due to a sore left knee, Josh Beckett, perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the roster if World Series aspirations are to be realized, left a start against the Toronto Blue Jays with a sprained right ankle.
The 3 2/3-inning start was the shortest for Beckett since April 26, 2010, also in Toronto. But that was simply a bad outing early in an injury-riddled season that would go down as the worst of his career. Monday's abbreviated start came near the end of a superb (and healthy, to this point) campaign in which Beckett has, at times, carried the staff.
The Red Sox rotation has been unstable from the start. While Beckett and Jon Lester and some of the replacements have had their moments, the team entered play with the 12th-fewest innings per start among starters. Through much of the season, the club has survived that issue on Beckett, Lester, a shutdown bullpen and a superior offense.
If Beckett is gone for any significant amount of time, that leaves one top-flight starter. In addition, that once-shutdown bullpen has lost stability in its bridge to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon; it will also enter Tuesday likely without Papelbon available and certainly without Alfredo Aceves, who threw 3 2/3 innings in relief of Beckett.
And the offense? Well, it was shut out for the second time in four games Monday — in 11 innings no less — and it has been limited to four runs or fewer in 21 of its last 33 games, including six of the last eight.
If there was ever a time for the lineup to get going again, now would be it. After Lester pitches Tuesday night in Toronto, Tim Wakefield and Andrew Miller will finish up the four-game series. September call-up Kyle Weiland will probably replace Bedard on Friday in Tampa Bay before turning to John Lackey on regular rest Saturday. If the Sox want to maintain a six-man rotation, they will need to find another replacement for Beckett, otherwise they can stay on turn with that quintet until Beckett and Bedard return.
That wouldn't necessarily scare away any opponents, would it?
Speaking of the Rays, they offer up another reason as to why the division race has become less significant.
The Rays are seven games behind the Sox in the loss column. They host Boston for three games this weekend and come to Fenway Park for four games later in the month. Tampa Bay is 4-1 in Boston this season, in part because it has outpitched the Red Sox. And that exemplary staff is currently performing at its best, posting an ERA of 3.00 since the beginning of August, and is healthy as can be at this point in the season.
If the Rays can have a good showing this weekend at home, it's not out of the realm of possibility for them to begin breathing down the backs of the Red Sox real soon. That may never occur, but if Boston doesn't find a way to plug some serious leaks, such a scenario could evolve in the coming two weeks.
For all these reasons, the division title is suddenly the least of the Red Sox concerns.