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AL East race still wide open

John Lacker, center, and the Red Sox fell for the second straight night on Wednesday.

Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

John Lacker, center, and the Red Sox fell for the second straight night on Wednesday.

PHILADELPHIA — Red Sox players woke up this morning still in first place in the American League East, clinging to a one-game lead over the Yankees, who are playing their worst baseball in some time.

The Sox need to show a killer instinct and not pass up any opportunity to gain on their rivals. And they have missed that opportunity with two straight losses to the Phillies, including a 4-3 defeat Wednesday night. Any chance to open up some space in a division that will be tight is very important.

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Baltimore and Tampa Bay are two games in the loss column from the top. The Blue Jays are even playing better, and have moved to within 8½ games of first place. Who knows if they can get back into the race after they’ve been written off?

Not gaining ground in these situations is not only frustrating, it’s potentially damaging. Any time you allow an opponent to hang around, there’s always the possibility you will pay for it later in the season, particularly if you lose a division or a wild-card race by one or two games. Then you start looking back to see where the season was lost.

Could it have been right here, with the Yankees reeling but the Sox unable to crush them by winning two games against the Phillies?

It’s not that the Phillies should be considered a gimme win. Cliff Lee would have beaten any team in baseball the way he subdued the Sox Tuesday night. Kyle Kendrick did a good job Wednesday night keeping Boston’s hitters unproductive.

Jonathan Papelbon made things exciting when the Red Sox scored a run on Jacoby Ellsbury’s ninth-inning double to left that Domonic Brown misplayed. The Sox nearly tied the game. But for the second straight night, Papelbon won the battle.

But this is a Phillies team that may trade some of its more prominent players if they don’t turn it around. This is a team on the downside, and the Sox haven’t been able to take care of business.

Granted, it’s a National League interleague series. The Sox had to have pitcher John Lackey hit. They also had to sit David Ortiz because Mike Napoli started at first base. Thursday night Ortiz likely will get the start at first and Napoli will sit. So the Sox don’t have their best lineup out there.

“It is what it is,” said Ortiz after he pinch hit for Jose Iglesias in the ninth and flied to right field. “You stick to the same plan and when you get to come in, you come in. I was ready, man. If it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. That’s all.”

Ortiz just missed a home run against Papelbon in the ninth inning Tuesday night at Fenway. He didn’t come nearly as close Wednesday night.

But it wasn’t just Ortiz’s lack of performance in a big situation that lost the game.

As Sox manager John Farrell pointed out, “We created a number of opportunities in the sixth and seventh innings and again in the ninth inning, eight men left on base. Balls not finding the hole, we get a questionable call on strike three. But a hard-fought game.”

Kendrick is no Lee, yet “we didn’t generate a whole lot in second through fifth innings, he kept them in the ballgame,” Farrell said.

The season is a series of snapshots. The Sox have had mostly good ones, productive ones. There was no bigger stretch of games than the first 12, which all were played against AL East opponents, and the Sox came out of it 8-4.

The stretch that begins Friday night also will be telling. The Sox have three in New York, then host Texas and the Angels for three apiece. They then have three games at Tampa Bay and four at Baltimore. It is the next important snapshot for this team.

But there are moments when you need to win just to show you’re capable of separating yourself from the pack. Is it too early to think that way? No. It’s never too early to show that you’re better than the opposition. But as well as the Sox have played, they have plenty of company in their division.

The Yankees would get a boost if Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis come off the disabled list Friday, which is a possibility. The Yankees’ subs, such as Lyle Overbay, have performed well. It now appears Overbay will go back to being a bench player with Teixeira returning. In fact, the Yankees may have too many players now, but that’s a good problem.

The Orioles have gone through their malaise recently. Jim Johnson had blown four out of his last five saves before securing the save in a 9-6 comeback win over Washington Wednesday night in which the Orioles overcame three home runs by Ryan Zimmerman. If Johnson is back on track, that’s big for Baltimore.

The Rays have now won four straight. On Wednesday, Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) allowed three hits in 8 innings against the Marlins. They’re coming on even without David Price. They’ve scored more runs than anyone expected and they now have a very hot young hitter — Wil Myers — who is tearing up Triple A Durham, where he leads the International League with 40 RBIs and he has nine homers.

The Jays, a consensus favorite to win the East and a big favorite to win the World Series, went into Atlanta, which has been a top-echelon team, and shut them out with first-time starter Esmil Rogers and two relievers just recalled from Las Vegas. The Jays have won three out of four, but have been beset with injuries, including third baseman Brett Lawrie, who recently went on the disabled list.

The Sox have exceeded expectations. But now that they’ve done that, they need to show they aren’t just a team that’s going to hang around. At some point, they need to separate themselves from the pack, an opportunity they’ve missed the last two games.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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