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NICK CAFARDO | ON BASEBALL

The Red Sox are slumping, and the AL East is a race again

Brock Holt, who replaced Andrew Benintendi in left field, strikes out swinging in the fifth inning. BRIAN BLANCO/Getty Images

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The Red Sox have played so poorly lately there’s a race again with the Yankees.

How did this happen? Granted the Yankees have been playing the Orioles and the Red Sox had tough games this week against Cleveland and Tampa Bay. But the six remaining Red Sox-Yankees games are now meaningful.

Sure, you’d rather be the Red Sox than the Yankees, because a couple of wins by the Red Sox and a couple of losses by the Yankees gets them back in that comfort zone. But after a 9-1 loss Sunday to the Rays, who swept a three-game series against the Red Sox, it doesn’t feel good.

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When the Yankees won their fourth straight game in Baltimore on Sunday night, the lead in the East was down to six games.

The Red Sox look like they’ve hit some kind of wall. They’ve been playing sloppy. I understand they were facing Blake Snell (16-5, 2.05 ERA), one of the best and nastiest lefties in baseball, so I thought they might want to use their best lineup against him. The Red Sox might not have won this game with Ted Williams and Willie Mays hitting back to back, but sometimes the resting of players comes at times when they need their best out there.

Related: Chris Sale will play catch Monday, said his shoulder “feels good”

I understand what Alex Cora was saying on Sunday morning, that there’s all kinds of data to suggest that players need to rest more. But sometimes the data is a bunch of nonsense. These are young men playing baseball. They do it, as Jim Rice said, “because we love to do it.” He learned the work ethic from Carl Yastrzemski, who rarely took a day off in his heyday. And now the players have the most comforts of any time in baseball history. Rice played in 163 games in 1978. Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games — as a shortstop.

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The team entourage on the road is filled with trainers, masseuses, and physical therapists. The food is excellent and healthy. OK, amphetamines are banned now; they are now considered performance-enhancing drugs so they can’t pop them anymore to feel energized. They have to rely on caffeine in the form of coffee or Red Bull.

But seriously, why does J.D. Martinez, who is going for a Triple Crown, need a day off with an off day coming up Monday? Martinez is primarily a DH with 47 games in the outfield.

It’s also understandable that Cora has a plan and he’s sticking to it. That’s admirable in many ways, but sometimes they have to win a game. Sunday was one of those days.

Do you think Nathan Eovaldi would have liked Martinez in the lineup in a game he’s pitching? And how about Andrew Benintendi? OK, I get the lefty-on-lefty thing but the 24-year-old Benintendi was 3 for 9 with three RBIs against Snell. That’s not too shabby. Martinez was 1 for 7. Replacing Benintendi in left was another lefthanded hitter — Brock Holt — who had never faced Snell. First batter for Tampa Bay — Joey Wendle — hit a lazy fly ball down the left-field line. Looked like Holt, playing the outfield for the first time in a while, lost it and it fell down the line for a double. It led to two runs for the Rays, who were off and running.

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The Red Sox are 4-4 in games in which Martinez doesn’t play. They are 4-5 in games Benintendi doesn’t play. I get the fact that everyone is probably a little more chipper and alert when they’re rested. But really good players probably should be in the lineup when they’re a little bit fatigued because even a good player being 75 percent is usually better than the person who replaces him.

Even with their injuries, the Yankees are coming back. Aaron Judge hasn’t even swung a bat yet, taking a long time for that fractured right wrist to heal. Gary Sanchez is going on a rehab assignment Monday in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Sonny Gray pitched a gem Saturday against the Orioles. J.A. Happ has been excellent in his five starts. Lance Lynn is pitching well. CC Sabathia is back and pitching well. Luke Voit is saving the offense with Greg Bird slumping so much. Miguel Andujar is making a serious bid for AL rookie of the year.

We all know it’s not necessarily about how many games you win. It’s about peaking at the right time.

Right now, the Red Sox are slumping, with two wins in their last eight games. They once enjoyed a 10½-game lead over the Yankees. Chris Sale is still out with shoulder tendinitis and his absence has taken its toll on a staff that has close to an 8.00 ERA in the past week. Eovaldi keeps throwing breaking balls when he has a 99-mile-per-hour fastball. Mookie Betts can’t shake his slump.

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“I do think there’s a lot of two-strike hits Friday and today,” Cora said about his rotation. “There were some bad ones.”

“It was a bad weekend,” Cora added. “They’re [the Rays] playing good baseball. Day off tomorrow and go get them on Tuesday, I think we’re preparing the same. I thought there was energy but the guy on the mound [Snell] sucked it out. We’ll start looking at a few things and we’ll pay attention to detail. I saw a few things, and it’s not that I didn’t like them, but we make adjustments even when we win.”

A little adversity has certainly infiltrated the Red Sox, who have avoided it all season until the last eight games. But the adversity has created a divisional race again. Something we never thought would happen 10 days ago.


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