This mercifully completed series has been like a horrific house fire burning out of control, the flames licking higher and higher, inflicting more and more damage as the games raged on and the losses piled up. Each day, the Red Sox trudged to their park in hopes of containing the blaze, of dousing the white-hot momentum of their most bitter rival, yet each day the Yankees turned up the heat and discovered another method to smoke out the battered local nine.
After yesterday's excruciating 2-1 loss, the Red Sox' push for the American League East title officially has been reduced to ashes. Five losses in four days. A 6 1/2-game deficit, 7 in the loss column. Four-game sweeps are demoralizing enough, but a five-game broom job? It's inconceivable. Five days ago, it would have been absurd to suggest it. Asked if he ever envisioned such a scenario, Yankees manager Joe Torre deadpanned, "Well, managers have visions of sugarplums."
So now the Sox head west with the leaders of the team, both on the field and off, searching amid the rubble for some glimmer of hope.
There were actually some bright spots yesterday, but to highlight them would be akin to pulling that gaudy lamp that Aunt Gladys left you in her will from under the scorched remains of the Red Sox' playoff dreams. The lamp is old, worn, and broken down, but when you plug it in, to your amazement, you discover, "Hey! This thing still works!"
David Wells, yesterday's Sox starter, still works. He almost retired three times this season because of a troubled knee, and when he retreated to San Diego to "rehab" it this spring, many (including me) felt certain he never would be seen again. But Wells, determined not to end his career on the disabled list, returned to the rotation July 31 and had won three of his last four starts.
Like Curt Schilling's before him. Wells's performance was deserving of a pick-me-up win. He pitched 7 1/3 innings and mixed his changeup, his curveball, and his fastball like a 43-year-old pro who has seen and done it all.
"You feel bad, man," said David Ortiz in the quiet of the Sox clubhouse. "He pitched his [butt] off. But you know how things are going for us. It might help to get out of the house, I guess.
"This whole series has been a nightmare."
Yesterday's angst came in the form of a pitching duel between Wells and Cory Lidle, a trading-deadline acquisition by New York.
Lidle departed after six innings, having held Boston scoreless. Wells battled on into the eighth, aided in part by a diluted Yankees lineup that did not include Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, or Johnny Damon.
The bottom four spots in the order were occupied by Craig Wilson, Bernie Williams, the immortal Sal Fasano, and Nick Green. They were a combined 1 for 13, although the one hit, a Green leadoff double in the eighth, led to the winning run.
The Sox needed Wells to go deep with their bullpen in tatters. Lidle, conversely, had pitching depth on his side. He and his 1-0 lead gave way in the seventh to Octavio Dotel, who pitched to two batters (one of whom, Mark Loretta, singled) before giving way to Mike Myers, who was signed specifically to punch out Ortiz. That he did, then handed the ball to Scott Proctor, who, with one on and two out, coaxed Gabe Kapler into a popup to end the inning.
It would have been nice to see what Yankee killer Manny Ramirez did in that position, but Ramirez asked out after the fourth inning, with what the team termed a "cramped hamstring."
Sound familiar? Hamstring issues have been the injury of record with Boston's left fielder before, at most curious times. Ramirez did not display a hint of a limp afterward, prompting questions to the manager about his decision to leave a game that clearly was hanging in the balance.
"Well, it's a cramp. I don't know," Francona said. "We'll see how sore it is. We tried to get him out so it doesn't end up being a couple, three days."
So did Manny ask out, or did Francona pull him?
"I can't tell a guy is cramped unless he starts limping," the manager answered. "He went to the trainers and they came to me."
Francona revealed that Loretta also had cramped up after Sunday night's game and he stayed on a couple of hours to receive treatment because "he knew he was going to have to play."
Shouldn't Manny have felt the same urgency? Coco Crisp, Loretta, and others are playing even though they're banged up. Cracked one of Ramirez's teammates, "C'mon. You know. Manny being Manny."
Sorry. That doesn't cut it. If Ramirez was seriously hurt, that's one thing. But his team needed him yesterday, and he bailed with a cramp.
Ortiz, who is also nicked up, took note of New York's rested stars with an envious eye, but understood why Francona couldn't afford his regulars that luxury.
"The four games have beaten everyone up," Big Papi said. "The Yankees can take chances at giving their players time off, but we're losing, so we've got to keep fighting. It's hard. Let's see what happens on the road."
Let's see if Manny recovers in time to resume his place in the lineup. Let's see if Keith Foulke can build on nearly two innings of sparkling work. Let's see if Boomer is in midseason form, ready to team with Schilling to shake this discouraged team back into contention.
"Boomer had great control today," said reliever Mike Timlin. "He located his fastball, he threw his cutter right.
"He's been around long enough now not to overthrow. He's out there basically just playing catch."
If Tim Wakefield returns soon, then maybe Jon Lester can join the bullpen, which was badly exposed in this series. If Foulke has conquered his physical demons, then he, too, changes the relief picture. If Wells can stay healthy, the Sox will have a nasty lefty to pair with their redoubtable righty, Schilling.
"It would have been nice to have that [pitching] earlier in the series so we didn't have to extend the bullpen so much," observed captain Jason Varitek. "Wells did everything you wanted. He kept the ball down. He threw the curveball to both sides. He gave the bullpen rest, and he gave our team an opportunity to win."
It didn't end up that way, of course. Aunt Gladys's lamp shone brightly, but the table, the chairs, the couch, and the ottoman still went up in smoke. Any insurance adjuster would have declared the scene at Fenway Park a total loss.
The Red Sox have no choice but to begin again. They have 38 games left to rebuild their playoff momentum from scratch.