By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
BOSTON -- Before their September nosedive, the Red Sox boasted two legitimate MVP candidates -- outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Together with Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Justin Verlander, Ellsbury and Gonzalez had viable candidacies -- Gonzalez for his year-long consistency and Ellsbury for his emergence as a budding superstar.
For a while, Gonzalez looked capable of leading the league in two of three Triple Crown categories (batting average and RBI), while Ellsbury's offensive contributions were lauded for a leadoff hitter.
But as the Red Sox' lead in the wild card has diminished, dropping from seven games prior to their arrival at Tropicana Field on Sept. 9 to the present two games, Ellsbury and Gonzalez have simialrly disappeared.
The Rays capped another big series win over the Red Sox with an 8-5 victory Sunday at Fenway, giving them three of four over the weekend and six of seven over last two weekends. They were able to do so in large part because the Sox' offense stalled.
Boston's best offensive player in this series was Mike Aviles, who homered in two of the three games in which he started and whose three-run belt into the Monster Seats in the seventh inning Sunday briefly gave the Sox some comeback hopes.
Other than that, the Sox didn't generate much at the plate. Part of the problem, of course, has been the team's poor starting pitching, which put the team behind in all four of the games.
"We've been playing from behind a lot in this stretch,'' said Terry Francona.
And indeed, that's no way to play, or win. Being down 2-0, 3-0 and 4-0, as the Sox were in the series with the Rays, creates a level of desperation in a lineup.
Pitches out of the strike zone are chased. Usual approaches are quickly discarded. Players start trying to hit the proverbial five-run homer to erase early-inning deficits.
Still, the production -- or lack thereof -- from Ellsbury and Gonzalez was alarming against Tampa Bay.
Gonzalez went the entire series without a single base hit in 12 at-bats and knocked in exactly one run in the four games. In his final two at-bats Sunday, he fanned both times.
He acknowledged that he was off his game in the series, got himself out too often and should have exhibited more patience at the plate.
Ellsbury was only slightly better. Though he had a single in the seventh and a double in the ninth on Sunday, he finished the series 4-for-16. Two of the hits were doubles and he had two RBI in the four games with two runs scored.
Combined, the Red Sox' MVP candidates were 4-for-28 (.143) with two RBI, two runs scored and two extra base hits.
To a certain extent, the four-game set was a microcosm of the month, when the Red Sox first began their free-fall. Gonzalez is hitting just .250 since September 1 with eight RBI in 16 games. Those aren't horrendous numbers, but neither are they the kind of numbers which carry a team.
(It should be noted that Gonzalez told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports Saturday that his surgically-repaired right shoulder has felt weak of late, no doubt contributing to his dropoff. Still, as Gonzalez has chosen to remain in the lineup, he must be judged on what he does -- or doesn't -- deliver.)
Ellsbury's poor series, by contrast, is all the more mystifying since his September has been the opposite of Gonzalez's -- stellar.
For the month, Ellsbury is hitting .361 (26-for-72) with a slugging percentage of .629 to go with 12 RBI in 17 games.
This weekend, however, Ellsbury's impact was minimal.
Contrast both players with the production turned in by the Rays' franchise player, Evan Longoria, who seemed to be in the middle of every Rays' rally.
It's unreasonable to think that any player is going to have the kind of series that, say, Carl Yastrzemski had on the final weekend of 1967, when the Red Sox beat the Minnesota Twins to capture the American League pennant.
But the larger point is this: MVPs are expected to lift a team and contribute in big games when their teams need them most. On that scale, both Ellsbury and Gonzalez came up short and their candidacies suffered accordingly.
Then again, individual awards are the last thing the Red Sox should be concerned with at the moment. If things don't get better soon, Ellsbury and Gonzalez will be disqualified for another reason: MVPs seldom come from non-playoff teams.