NEW YORK -- It's crunch time for the Red Sox, who may have salvaged their deteriorating season with a big come-from-behind, 7-4 win in 14 innings over the hated Yankees on Sunday night. But there's no rest for the weary. After splitting a day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, they are clinging to a one-game lead over the Rays in the American League Wild Card race, with three games left. "Obviously, it was a big win for us," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after Jacoby Ellsbury's three-run homer off Scott Proctor gave Boston a lead it would keep. "But we've got to get down there and play good tomorrow. To lose that game would've been very tough." Boston will finish the regular season at Baltimore, while the Yankees will play out the string at Tropicana Field against the hard-charging Rays. Both three-game sets begin on Monday night.
It was a day of very high highs and extremely low lows for the Red Sox. Their near-historic collapse can't be blamed on one person or on any one element of the game, but in every phase of it -- from pitching to clutch hitting, to baserunning to shaky defense. "How concerned am I about it? I'm concerned with everything," Francona said after a 6-2 loss to the Yankees in Game 1 that was chocked with fundamental mistakes. "That part falls right on my shoulders. If things don't go right, it's my responsibility. "Saying that, we have [three] games to right ourselves. We just have to work on our 'righting' skills." This is the way game No. 158 started for the Red Sox: In the bottom of the first, neither pitcher Tim Wakefield nor third baseman Mike Aviles could quickly field well-placed bunts by Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter. As Jeter stole second, Wakefield's pitch tipped off the glove of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia for an error that brought home Gardner. A passed ball and wild pitch later, Jeter was across the plate. Wakefield also walked two before he was lifted in the fifth inning. And, oh yes, Ellsbury was picked off first by A.J. Burnett in the top of the inning. Later still, left fielder Carl Crawford misplayed a hop on a fifth-inning Jeter single, leading to another unearned run on the error. Game No. 159 didn't begin any better. With two runners on in the first against Game 2 hurler John Lackey, Mark Teixeira drove a shot that hit off the very top of the fence in right-center, scoring the game's first two runs. Teixeira kept motoring to third base as the throw went to the plate. Veteran catcher Jason Varitek then launched his relay over third for an error, allowing Teixeira to score. This kind of overall play would be startling for a pair of games in Fort Myers, Fla., during Spring Training. But the disturbing thing about watching the Red Sox play in September is that they are so fundamentally unsound in almost every area at this key juncture of the season. Even as they came back from a 3-0 deficit to win the nightcap, the Red Sox committed three more baserunning blunders, one of which occurred at home plate and could've cost Boston the game-deciding run when Dustin Pedroia was thrown out trying to score on a wild pitch. "This is frustrating," Wakefield said. "We can't seem to catch a break. Things happen during the course of a game or even an inning, and things snowball from there. It's not just me. It's not just the starting pitchers. It takes 25 guys to regroup, and that's what we have to do." When the going got tough, the Red Sox have gone 6-17, heading into the final three days of the regular season. They had a two-game lead in the AL East over the Yankees as late as Aug. 28 and a 10-game bulge in the AL Wild Card race as late as Aug. 17. The Red Sox now trail the Yankees by eight games, a 10-game turnaround. Their AL Wild Card lead has all but evaporated. It's a collapse that's come as a major shock. "I think everyone is somewhat surprised just because of the talent in that room, but as a club, you go through hard times," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said prior to Game 1. "We've been through our hard times this year. They have, Tampa has -- every team in our division. Players walk a fine line. The competition is stiff in our division, and if you're not playing your best, you can lose to anyone in our division." The Red Sox have lost plenty this month. They've dropped four of six to the Blue Jays, six out of seven to the Rays, three out of four to the Orioles and the first two games of this just-concluded three-game set against the Yankees. There is, of course, history. The Red Sox have collapsed before, with two of the more famous ones coming at the hands of the Yankees. In 1949, the Red Sox of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doer came into the original Yankee Stadium leading the AL by a game, needing to win only one of the final two to go the World Series. They lost both. In 1978, the Red Sox of Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski held a 14-game bulge on July 19. That lead was gone by Sept. 10 as the Yankees slipped ahead of them into first place after a four-game sweep at Fenway Park dubbed "The Boston Massacre." The season ended in a tie and the Yanks won the AL East in a playoff game at Fenway, with homers from Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson. In both years, the Yankees went on to win the World Series. This year is not yet a closed book, although let's not forget that the Red Sox opened the season 2-10, shining an early light on what could be a tough season of unrequited expectations. But as Francona said, there's still time for them to wipe the slate clean. A Friday date in the AL Division Series still beckons. The Yankees, Tigers and Rangers are already there. The Red Sox still have the slimmest of leads on Tampa Bay, but they are in control. All they have to do is win. "It's been tough, man -- it's tough and it won't get any easier," said David Ortiz, a veteran of the 2004 club that came back from a 3-0 deficit in the AL Championship Series to vanquish the Yankees. "But I'm a warrior, man, and I fight back. That's all you can do: come back and give everything you've got." They have three games to do so, and counting.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.