The Boston Red Sox looked like a lock to make the playoffs roughly a month ago, but they have their work cut out for them as they head into their final series of the year.
The visiting Red Sox try to stay alone atop the wild-card race when they open a three-game road set with the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night.After a slow start to the season, Boston (89-70) posted a winning record in May, June, July and August to enter September atop the East, 1 1/2 games ahead of the New York Yankees and nine in front of third-place Tampa Bay.While a postseason appearance seemed all but certain at that point, recording the majors' second-worst record (6-18) and second-worst ERA (5.82) this month hasn't made things easy on manager Terry Francona's club."We've got to grind and shine," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "That's what we've got to do from here on out."The Red Sox nearly fell into a first-place tie with the Rays in the wild-card race before taking the nightcap of Sunday's doubleheader against the Yankees.After falling 6-2 in the afternoon, Boston snapped its four-game skid, prevailing 7-4 on Jacoby Ellsbury's three-run shot in the 14th inning -- his third homer of the day."We just put ourselves in a good position, that's all we can do," Ellsbury said.Ellsbury has hit safely in 33 consecutive game against Baltimore. It's the longest hitting streak against the Orioles franchise and the longest by a Red Sox player against any team.Boston sits one game ahead of the Rays for the league's final postseason berth. Tampa Bay concludes its season with three home games against the Yankees."I hope we were breathing before -- every other breath. It was a BIG win, but we've got to go down (Monday) and play well," Francona said.The Red Sox have dominated the Orioles (67-92) over the years, but they can't afford to take them lightly, especially after dropping three of four meetings in Boston last week.Josh Beckett (13-6, 2.70 ERA) was hit hard during the finale of that four-game set, yielding a season-high six runs and seven hits in 7 1/3 innings of Wednesday's 6-4 loss."You want to pitch good all year long, but especially whenever your team needs you," Beckett said. "You need to give them innings and quality innings and that was something I wasn't able to do (Wednesday)."Beckett, who is 1-1 with a 6.38 ERA against the Orioles this season, is 5-2 with a 3.18 mark over 11 career outings at Camden Yards. Vladimir Guerrero is just 11 for 49 (.224) with two homers and 10 strikeouts lifetime against Beckett while Nolan Reimold is 0 for 9.After going 0 for 4 during Sunday's 10-6 loss at Detroit, Guerrero remains stuck on 2,586 career hits. He needs one more to surpass Julio Franco for the all-time lead among Dominican-born players.Reimold, meanwhile, has been locked in at the plate of late, going 15 for 46 (.326) with five home runs and 14 RBIs over his last 15 games.Baltimore gives the ball to Tommy Hunter (4-4, 4.86), who gave up four runs and nine hits in 6 2/3 innings opposite Beckett last week. The right-hander is 2-1 despite a 7.50 ERA in five career meetings with Boston.Hunter had compiled a 6.46 ERA during his previous four home starts before throwing seven scoreless innings in an 8-3 win over Los Angeles on Sept. 16.Hunter will look to slow down Dustin Pedroia, who is batting .371 over an eight-game hitting streak. The All-Star second baseman has recorded a .362 average while hitting safely in 13 straight games versus the Orioles."A lot of people were writing us off so we're going to play hard," Pedroia said.