NEW YORK -- They were refreshed, following a scheduled day off and then a rainout. They had a reshuffled lineup that had Carl Crawford batting second for the first time in more than a month. They had their ace on the mound.
At last, the script was right for the Red Sox to cure their many problems of the last few weeks.
But then the game started, and everything fell apart again in a 9-1 loss to the Yankees.
Who can figure out how things have turned so sour for the reeling Red Sox?
"We all want to win," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's up to us to go win. We know what's in front of us. We just have to play better."
And they have to pitch better -- a lot better.
Jon Lester had struggled in his previous two starts. But in this one, he turned in one of the worst -- and shortest -- outings of his career, getting shelled for eight hits and eight runs over just 2 2/3 innings.
"It's just one of those deals," Lester said. "I've been getting my [butt] kicked lately. It's not a good time to have this stretch."
Over his last three starts, Lester is 0-3 with a 10.55 ERA.
The power lefty threw 55 pitches on Saturday. And that provided the only silver lining of an otherwise bleak day. If the Red Sox need to bring Lester back on three days' rest in Wednesday's regular-season finale at Baltimore, they can do so after the lefty's light workload in this one.
"They just spread it out in a hurry," Francona said. "The good part of it, he didn't throw a ton of pitches, so if we need him, that will help."
To a man, the 88-69 Red Sox are still hoping it doesn't come to that. But with Boston now 5-17 in September, it's hard to know exactly what the next four days will bring, beginning with Sunday's day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.
With five games left, the Sox lead the Rays by 1 1/2 games and the Angels by 2 1/2 in the American League Wild Card standings. When the month started, Boston's lead was nine games.
"We've got a two-game lead in the Wild Card right now," Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez before Tampa Bay defeated Toronto, 6-2. "I think when we get into the playoffs, whoever we play better watch out because we're going to go in being the underdog, especially the way we've been playing this month, so we've got nothing to lose."
Because of the Rays' win Saturday, Boston's magic number to clinch a postseason berth -- currently four -- won't shrink before Sunday's doubleheader.
"Plain and simple, we're not playing good baseball," Gonzalez said. "At the same time, we can come out tomorrow and win the two games and pretty much be a lock to be in the playoffs. All these things can turn in a matter of 12 hours."
The most pressing concern for Boston right now isn't postseason positioning. It is finding a way to snap out of a near unfathomable slump.
While the offense has struggled to be consistent, the starting pitching continues to be the most glaring weakness. For the month, the rotation is 4-11 with a 7.36 ERA. For the 10th time in 22 games this month, a Boston starter was unable to pitch five innings.
"It doesn't matter," Francona said. "Again, today was tough. I know we've been talking about it a lot because it's happened quite a bit. We've got enough arms down there -- it's not going to ruin our bullpen. But it's hard to win that way."
In this one, Lester made the second-shortest start of his career. His 55 pitches were the second fewest in an injury-free start. Lester left a start earlier this year with 50 pitches when he sustained a lat injury.
Any time a pitcher like Lester struggles, it's natural to wonder if maybe there's an injury he's dealing with. But the lefty was emphatic in saying that isn't the case.
"No -- we're not going to get into that," Lester said. "I'm not tired. I'm not hurt. There's nothing wrong with me. I wouldn't go out there if there was something wrong with me. It's nothing physically."
So what is it?
"I stink," Lester said. "If I had the answer, it wouldn't happen. You go 32-0 every year if you had the answer of why you stink sometimes. It just happens. It's part of baseball. Teams go through stretches like this, like we're going [through]. Pitchers go through stretches like I'm doing. It's the name of the game. Other times, you throw the ball right down the middle and it gets popped up. That's baseball. You make a pitch on the black, and it gets hit 400 feet."
Scott Atchison gave the Sox a nice lift out of the bullpen, firing 2 1/3 hitless innings and allowing just one baserunner.
Theoretically, Atchison bought the Boston bats time to mount a comeback. But this was one of those days the Sox didn't hit or pitch. Yankees righty Freddy Garcia fired six shutout innings.
"Garcia is adding and subtracting," Francona said. "When we did get in hitters' counts, he kind of takes a little off and kind of takes the sting out of our bats, and it ends up being a long day."
The game started to unravel in the bottom of the second inning, when the Yankees erupted for a six-spot.
There were a couple of plays the Red Sox didn't make defensively during that inning that became haunting.
With first and second and one out, Jesus Montero hit a grounder to the hole that shortstop Marco Scutaro fielded. He might have had a force at third but instead tried to go to second. Everybody was safe.
"I thought I would be able to get to the ball and go to second without jumping, but the last bounce kind of took me more to the hole," Scutaro said. "That's when I kind of reached for it, and I had to jump and throw to second."
Then Russell Martin stepped up and blooped one into left. Crawford tried to make a diving catch and appeared to be there in time, but the ball ticked off his glove, allowing two runs to score and making it a 3-0 game.
"I just tried to make a play at it. I didn't make it. That's pretty much it," Crawford said.
Such is life these days for the Red Sox.
"We got in a situation whether they're not errors, but we didn't finish a couple of plays, and they really made us pay," Francona said.
With the crowd at the Stadium already on its feet, Derek Jeter turned it into a full roar when he belted a three-run homer to right.
Game. Set. Match.
"It was just up," said Lester.
While the Yankees prep for an AL Division Series against Texas, Detroit or even the Angels, their rivals are in a scramble just to survive.
"We beat them today -- that's it," Jeter said. "I'm not concerned with what I see in them. We're trying to win our games, trying to stay sharp. We swung the bats well and Freddy pitched well, so I can't concern myself with what I think I see or don't see with them."