NEW YORK -- The lead the Red Sox have been holding on to for dear life during one of the worst Septembers in team history is still there, but now just by a thread.
After another nine innings of exasperation that resulted in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees in Game 1 of Sunday's day-night doubleheader, Boston's lead in the American League's Wild Card standings was down to a half-game over the Tampa Bay Rays, who beat the Blue Jays on Sunday, heading into Game 2.
That lead was 10 games on Aug. 17, and nine when September started.
But it is almost down to nothing after a stunning swoon that has seen the Sox go 5-18 for the month and lose seven of their last eight.
There are four games left in the regular season. The Red Sox will try to avoid become the first team to squander a lead of 10 games in the Wild Card since the inception of the current standings format in 1994.
"We have four games," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "We can write our [destiny]. We just need to work on our writing skills a little bit."
Not to mention their pitching.
The most constant development during the rut reared its ugly head again, as a Boston starter -- this time Tim Wakefield -- went less than five innings. It was the 11th time in 23 games a starter has been unable to record 15 outs.
Wakefield gave up five hits and five runs (three earned) over four-plus innings. He walked five and struck out four.
"It's not just the starting pitching -- it's everybody," Wakefield said. "It takes 25 guys to win. We've got to regroup the next two hours and play good baseball tonight, and hopefully get some momentum and get some breaks our way and go on to Baltimore with a full game lead."
There was an individual highlight for the Red Sox, and it came from Jacoby Ellsbury, who belted two homers to give him 30 on the season, and 100 RBIs. In doing so, Ellsbury, who has 38 stolen bases, became the first 30-30 player in team history.
Forgive Ellsbury for not being in the mood to reflect on a personal accomplishment as his team tries to battle out of its lowest point of the season.
"I just go out there and try to play the game 100 percent," Ellsbury said. "We still have some baseball left, and hopefully, we can finish strong."
If not, the consequences will be hard to stomach.
There are still a few players left from the 2004 Red Sox, who became the first team in Major League history to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series.
But this is an entirely different situation.
"Two thousand four? This is not even close to that," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "We've lost, what, 18 games this month? That's deep."
The last time the Red Sox lost 18 games in September was 1974.
"It's not a good feeling," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "You've got a pit in your stomach. It's not fun. We've got to stop worrying about what's happened the last three weeks and come out and play tonight and play hard the rest of the way."
Once again, the game took on a bad feeling right from the start for the Red Sox. Brett Gardner opened the first with a bunt single and after he stole second, Derek Jeter dropped down a bunt single. Jeter then stole second, and Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia dropped the ball for an error, allowing Gardner to race home. A wild pitch by Wakefield brought home Jeter, and it was 2-0.
"It was tough," Francona said. "It started with two bunts so we're already pitching out of the stretch. The ball goes back to the backstop so we're down two."
Jorge Posada made it a four-run cushion in the third, when he launched a two-run shot to right.
"Then Posada runs into one, so they start to spread it out. I think normally, in the course of a normal year, you leave Wake out there and he probably finds a way to keep battling," said Francona. "Because of the situation, we went right to [Matt] Albers to try to stop it now. Actually, the bullpen did a pretty good job."
But the offense, even with the tweaks Francona made on Saturday, moving Carl Crawford to the two-hole, Pedroia to third and Adrian Gonzalez to the fifth spot, continues to sputter.
A.J. Burnett, who brought a 5.28 ERA into this one, held the Sox to five hits and two runs, both on solo homers by Ellsbury.
"It's tough," Ortiz said. "It's not getting any easier. I'm a warrior, man. I fight back. That's all I can do. You know, come back and bring everything you've got."
After Ellsbury's first homer made it 4-1, the Yankees answered in the fifth. Jeter led off by lacing a single that Crawford was out of position in fielding, and it rolled past him, allowing Jeter to get to second. Alex Rodriguez drilled an RBI single to make it a 5-1 game.
"The short hop, kind of the middle hop. I'd like to go look at it a little bit," Francona said of Crawford's mishap. "He was in between and just whiffed. He got in between a little bit and just didn't come up with it."
As they got ready for another nine innings on Sunday evening, the Sox knew they had reached a crossroads.
"This is not all about how many times they knock you down," Ortiz said. "It's about how many times you get up. We haven't been able to [yet] and we're against the ropes right now. This is not 2 and a half [games up], you know? That game tonight can tell you a lot."