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Could there be an early winter for the Red Sox?

The playoff spot that once seemed certain is now in doubt, as Red Sox Nation watches in disbelief.

Put your Red Sox rally cap on. The Tampa Bay Rays just swept the Sox, and from talking pennant a week ago, Sox fans are now sweating the Wild Card race. What happened?

To me it all started in mid-August when my wife, Sally, and I made our annual pilgrimage to Fenway to see the Red Sox. The Rays were in town. The pitching matchup was John Lackey versus David Price.

The Sox managed only three hits (for the third home game in a row -- the first time in Red Sox history) and lost 5-0. Remember, we're at Fenway Park where their hitters usually feast; yet when faced with quality pitching, they looked overmatched.

We began to wonder if the Sox were faltering.

A surprisingly good road trip followed to Kansas City and Texas, but then the Sox returned home for two consecutive three-game series with likely post-season rivals, the Yankees and the Texas Rangers. The Sox lost both series, managing just two wins in that six-game stretch.

We are now well into the final month of the season. The Red Sox should make the playoffs, although with the current swoon, the Boston Globe Sox song of the day for Sunday was "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly. If the Red Sox do "not fade away," they will have to take the coming four-game home series next weekend with the Rays, then get by Texas and the Yankees to get to the World Series. What are their chances?

The recent indicators are not good, even for this lifelong member of Red Sox Nation. The old adage is that pitching wins playoffs, and Sox pitching is suspect. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are quality pitchers having good years. Beckett, though, is prone to niggling injury, as we saw last week in Toronto when he somehow managed to sprain his ankle while throwing a very normal looking pitch. Do the Sox have a conditioning coach?

The remaining starters are erratic or worse. Lackey, though pitching better since the All-Star break, is still going to give up five or six runs a game and only get through six innings.

Eric Bedard has shown promise, but he remains overly cautious against quality teams and serves up lots of walks. He also is having continuing problems with his previously injured knee. Then there is rookie Andrew Miller who has been infrequently quite good and most often wild and hitable.

Finally, there is 44-year-old Tim Wakefield. Wake is a wonder. He is durable and dedicated, but he seems to be running out of gas here late in the season. He has been chasing his 200th win for more than a month with less and less effect.

As for relief pitching, the Red Sox are in good shape if they can get to eight innings and bring on Daniel Bard followed by Jonathan Papelbon -- these two are "lights-out" guys -- even though Bard has had a couple of tough outings recently. The problem is that outside of Beckett and Lester we have no starter who can get to the eighth inning.

Our seventh inning guy was supposed to be Bobby Jenks, who has bombed -- again. (Where is the conditioning coach?) It also might have been Dan Wheeler, who did the seventh well at Tampa Bay, but has mostly struggled in Boston.

As this fan looks ahead, he has trouble seeing us get through a Yankees series. We might get by Texas, but the Yankees' pitching and their hitting are just too deep.

Perhaps Clay Bucholtz will make a miracle return and be ready for the playoffs. That would be a big plus. More likely our hopes will rest on being able to put seven or so runs on the books regularly in these playoffs. We have done it this season: Witness the Red Sox record against Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia. The Sox are 4-1 against a guy whose record is 19-8.

The Red Sox are formidable on offense. Jacoby Ellsbury is having a career year. David Ortiz is not far behind. Justin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are both people you would want up in any clutch situation. Adrian Gonzalez's stats are great, but he doesn't seem to be there when the game is on the line.

We do have a chance, but it is looking slimmer than a month ago. Sox manager Terry Francona will need to come up with some late-season magic to bring another World Series title to Boston.