All the Red Sox needed to do this past weekend was win one game.
A frustrating inability to capitalize on Yankees losses while they played in Toronto was in the past. For the time being, injuries to the starting rotation seemed surmountable, at least for one game.
One game, and they'd at least tread water in the division as well as in the Wild Card standings. One game, one win -- which would have been just their third in the month of September -- and the complexion of things would remain overcast, but steer clear of dour.
They couldn't do it.
Of the three games the Red Sox to the Rays this past weekend, the most surprising was the 9-1 rout behind Jon Lester. But the most frustrating, by far, was the walkoff win for Tampa Bay late on Saturday night.
Nobody was expecting much from Kyle Weiland, and he delivered a lukewarm four-inning, three-run start before being yanked in favor of Alfredo Aceves.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, had squeezed a run across in the top of the second on a fielder's choice groundout courtesy of Jed Lowrie, and in the top of the fifth, Adrian Gonzalez hit a resounding two-run homer to tie up the score at three all. Gonzalez hollered as he high-fived his teammates in the dugout -- some fire, some spark, at least, seemed to be returning to the team with that hit.
And that's when Aceves gave up two more runs, only the fourth time in 42 relief appearances this season that he's given up more than one.
But the Sox weren't done raising our hopes -- in the top of the ninth, with one out, Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a solo home run that just barely cleared the wall. Jacoby Ellsbury's homer, which followed, was much more decisive, a towering blast to center at 413 feet. Tie game, for the second time.
Then--worse--the Red Sox had a chance to put things away right there and then, when a slumping Dustin Pedroia doubled, and Gonzalez walked. There was still just one out when David Ortiz came to the plate -- and grounded into a double play.
From there, the game would continue for another two innings. Jonathan Papelbon did his part, pitching two perfect innings, but so did Tampa Bay's Cesar Ramos and Brandon Gomes. With each passing out, the win that had seemed imminent in the top of the ninth slipped further from Boston's grasp.
Suddenly, in fact, it seems we're witnessing the return of the team that went 0-6 and 2-10, the team that now seems like the evil alter ego of the 2011 Red Sox we've been able to enjoy most of the summer.
The worrisome return of the Slumping Sox just in time for the stretch run was embodied on Saturday by Daniel Bard. On Opening Day, he kicked off the bullpen malaise that marked the early season with a career-bad appearance, in which he surrendered four runs and allowed the Texas Rangers (another September nemesis) to blow open the game.
Now, in September, Bard has been at the helm of two walkoff wins for Boston's opponents, first, for the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre last Wednesday night -- and again on Saturday, when he surrendered an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th to Evan Longoria.
Of course, it's not all on Bard, or even the bullpen. The injury bug has also begun a slithering return, claiming our best pitcher with an ankle injury to Josh Beckett and one of the staples of the Sox lineup with bursitis and a hernia suffered by Kevin Youkilis. Had the two of them been there on Saturday...well, who knows.
Victims of circumstance or not, however, though we're less than halfway through the month and it doesn't seem quite time to hit the panic button just yet, things have begun to take on a whiff of heightened urgency around the Red Sox. There's a quiet note of strain in the otherwise cheerful intonations of NESN broadcasters. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous -- if only because, within this very season, we've seen this same movie before.