By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It was supposed to be the final game of the next-to-last road trip of the regular season, no more or less meaningful than the 75 other road games they've already played.
Instead, after a crushing, 6-5, extra-inning loss to the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday night, it's become awfully close to a must-win for the Red Sox.
Coming into this series, the Red Sox needed one win against the hard-charging Rays. One win Friday or Saturday would have halted the Rays' momentum. The math would have meant that the best the Rays could hope to make up during the series was a net improvement of one game in standings.
That wouldn't have been enough, with just over two weeks to go in the season. A six-game difference in the loss column would have been too imposing.
But not now. Thanks to Red Sox losses Friday and Saturday, the Red Sox have lost four in a row, six out of seven, nine of 12. They have seen their margin for the wild card shaved to four games.
What they've done, really, is held the door open for the Rays and invited them to join the playoff push.
This is the invitation the Rays have been waiting for all season. They did nothing at the trade deadline, hamstrung by the improbability of making up all that ground in the final two months, and, as always, payroll limitations.
September was going to be all about the Red Sox and Yankees, jocking for position, angling for the division title, with the loser taking the wild card spot.
Not anymore. It's close to becoming a three-team race. There's still time for the Rays, who have four games remaining with the Sox next weekend at Fenway and seven with the Yankees.
The Yankees, too, suddenly have problems of their own, having lost four straight. If the Red Sox had merely played .500 or so through the first six games of this road trip, they likely would be tied or leading the division.
But that's a discussion for another time, because winning the division is, suddenly, far from the Red Sox' biggest priority. The biggest challenge is making sure they get to the playoffs at all.
Two weeks ago, that sort of statement would have been silly. Back then, seeding was the lone concern. That, and trying to decide whether the Sox would be better off playing Texas or Detroit in the Division Series.
That seems like a long time ago now. Injuries have torn apart the rotation and robbed the Sox, for now, of their cleanup hitter.
They're not sure who's going to start for them three games from now, and they don't know who's their best option for the seventh inning.
In the big picture, however, the problems are simpler. One more loss here would change the face of the final two weeks, and turn September from tune-up time to survival mode.