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Red Sox failing to come up with clutch hits

Pedro Ciriaco heads back to the dugout after failing to execute an eighth-inning bunt with the Sox down by a run.

AL MESSERSCHMIDT/GETTY IMAGES

Pedro Ciriaco heads back to the dugout after failing to execute an eighth-inning bunt with the Sox down by a run.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It’s not even an issue of whether Pedro Ciriaco should or shouldn’t have bunted.

The problem is the Red Sox can’t seem to score a big run when they really need it.

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Even with Ciriaco’s botched attempt to move Jacoby Ellsbury to third base in the eighth inning Saturday night with the Rays leading, 4-3, the Red Sox had runners at first and second with one out, and couldn’t advance Ellsbury.

Even in their 3-1 win Friday night, the Sox allowed the Rays to stay in the game because they couldn’t score after the second inning.

We’ve certainly written our share of stories about how the Sox need good starting pitching to be around in October, but they’d better get their act together offensively.

“It seems like we’re one hit away in some of these games,” third base coach Jerry Royster said.

“It’s frustrating, but we’re going to get there.”

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It’s good that they had a pitcher of David Price’s caliber on the ropes. But to have him there and not finish him off was tough.

Will Middlebrooks delivered a two-run homer off Price in the fourth inning, a clutch hit considering Middlebrooks had looked absolutely awful in striking out in the second and then in the pitches leading up to the homer.

But in the fifth, the Red Sox put the first two men on base — Kelly Shoppach with a walk and Brent Lillibridge with a single to left-center.

They loaded the bases with one out when Ellsbury singled, but got nothing again. Ciriaco hit a line drive to right field and Shoppach was thrown out at the plate.

Absolutely maddening.

In the sixth they get a one-out walk from Cody Ross and a rare passed ball by Jose Molina advanced him to second. The Red Sox got a run only because Price misfired on a pickoff throw to third, scoring Ross.

As for Ciriaco’s bunt, he did it on his own, according to Bobby Valentine and Royster. Ciriaco said he was trying to bunt for a base hit. For a guy who was 10 for 16 in his last four games, the simple question is why.

“It was a good pitch, I just didn’t do the right thing. I think it was a good opportunity to try to bunt and that’s what I tried to do,” he said.

If he’s bunting to sacrifice, fine. That way he just squares up and lays it down.

But trying to bunt for a base hit, he wound up fouling it into the catcher’s mitt. Again, the results weren’t good, but nobody seemed too upset about the play in the Sox clubhouse.

Royster, in fact, didn’t think it was a bad play. Facing Price, Ciriaco’s thinking was to try not to do too much, get the runners over.

It simply backfired.

But then, after David Ortiz walked, you had two very good hitters in Ross and Middlebrooks. They couldn’t get it done against reliever Joel Peralta.

Maddening again.

It’s also maddening to bat in the ninth without a full bench at your disposal.

Aviles singled to lead off, and though Valentine was able to hit Jarrod Saltalamacchia for Shoppach, Saltalamacchia struck out.

But then righthanded-hitting Brent Lillibridge had to bat against All-Star closer Fernando Rodney. Why?

Because Ryan Sweeney tweaked a hamstring and wasn’t available, and Adrian Gonzalez had tweaked his back Friday bending over to reach down and look at a youngster at the Mall.

Scream.

So Lillibridge was left to bat and struck out. No shock there.

Someone needs a big hit. Someone needs to do something dramatic. The Sox signed Ross to provide late-inning heroics with the long ball. That’s what he did for the Giants in the postseason two years ago, and while he’s performed well, these were situations where his power bat was needed.

Daniel Nava was a great story for a while, but he’s now in the middle of a 7-for-60 slump and his average keeps plummeting. It appears that the Sox might have to do some outfield shuffling Monday when Carl Crawford is activated.

Nava has minor league options. Sweeney, who claims he will be back on Sunday, could also be in line for yet another stint on the DL. Gonzalez also likely won’t play in the series finale on Sunday.

The addition of Ellsbury was supposed to give this lineup a jolt, and Ellsbury is certainly doing his best to knock off the rust, collecting two hits Saturday. But one thing he hasn’t done is ignite the offense by stealing a base.

When he was on second base in the eighth, you thought maybe he’ll try to steal third, but he played it cautiously. The old Ellsbury might have been so confident in his ability to make it, he would have thrown caution to the wind.

And even then you wonder if those behind him could have gotten him across.

The middle of the Sox order must get going because teams are giving Ortiz absolutely nothing to hit.

Joe Maddon is not afraid to walk him under virtually any circumstance, like he did Friday night when there was a runner on first base in the fifth inning with the Rays trailing, 3-0.

That shows great respect for Ortiz, but Maddon doesn’t appear too afraid of who’s after him. That’s not good for the Red Sox.

Both Royster and Valentine think the clutch hits will come soon. And the Red Sox certainly rank high with their overall offensive numbers, but, boy, when they need a big hit, they’re becoming harder to get.

“We should be at least six or seven games better than we are if we had gotten timely hitting,” said one Sox veteran player.

“We’ve got to turn that around. We can’t keep doing this to our pitching staff. They have to be perfect sometimes because we can’t score enough runs and come through late in games when we could really bury some teams.”

Instead, the Red Sox are burying themselves.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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