BALTIMORE -- Two games left, and it's all tied up. That is the reality the Red Sox now face as their once secure grip in the American League Wild Card standings has slipped away entirely.
This, after a 6-3 loss on Monday at Camden Yards to the 68-92 Orioles, a team that has beaten the Red Sox in four out of five meetings over the last week.
If the Red Sox don't reverse that in the next two games, they could be going home earlier than anyone thought. The resilient Rays have come all the way back and have the same 89-71 record as Boston after beating the Yankees, 5-2, at Tropicana Field on Monday.
It was the continuation of an almost surreal turn of events over the last few weeks for the Red Sox, who have gone 6-19 in September, losing nine games in the standings over that time.
"There's not much to say," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "We need to find a win tomorrow. We've backed ourselves about as far as we can go. Hopefully we can come out and play a nice crisp game."
The Red Sox will next turn to lefty Erik Bedard, who is 1-2 with a 3.63 ERA in seven starts since being acquired from Seattle.
Back on Aug. 17, Boston had a lead of 10 games in the AL Wild Card. Now the Sox have two games -- and perhaps a one-game playoff on Thursday -- to avoid being the first team to blow a double-digit Wild Card lead since that format started in 1994.
Instead of worrying about what has slipped away, the Red Sox will try to fix it. They know they could well have to win their next two games, and perhaps even a third, if there is a one-game playoff at Tropicana Field on Thursday.
"We still control our destiny," said first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "If we win two games and have to play a third, if we win, we're in the playoffs. We all have to be confident. Other people can doubt us, but we have to be confident. We're very confident we can accomplish that."
Things will have to change quickly for the Red Sox, because they haven't had a two-game winning streak in a month -- Aug. 27, to be precise.
"It's a good opportunity," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "We've got to come out and play good baseball. That's basically it. We've all worked really hard all year. It's been a long season. It's had its ups and downs but we've got two games left. Tomorrow we're going to play as hard as we can, I promise you."
The signature moment of Monday's came with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, the game still hanging in the balance.
With the Red Sox down by a run, Robert Andino hit a drive to deep center. Jacoby Ellsbury raced back and looked as if he was about to make one of the most spectacular catches of his career.
But as Ellsbury lunged for the ball -- he even had it in his glove for just an instant -- he also smacked into the wall.
The baseball squirted away, and Andino was off to the races with a game-breaking, inside-the-park, three-run homer.
"Right as I caught the ball, I hit the wall and it came out," said Ellsbury. "I hit it about as hard as I could run while looking up at the ball over my shoulder like that. Right as I caught it, I hit the wall and it popped out. He hit a good ball to center field and I thought I had a good shot at catching it off the bat. I knew it would be close. Right as I went for it I was hoping I had a little bit more room."
It was the first inside-the-parker the Orioles have hit in Camden Yards, and the first the Red Sox have allowed in any venue since July 23, 2006, when Adrian Beltre hit one against them at Safeco Field.
Instead of building on an emotional 14-inning victory over the Yankees to cap Sunday's day-night doubleheader, the Sox took a step back.
"There is no such thing as a springboard," said Gonzalez. "Every day's a new day. You've got to come out every day and play with intensity. You guys might think there are those kind of things, but there aren't. Every day's a new day."
Their bullpen spent, the Red Sox were hoping Josh Beckett would come through with a big-time performance. But the righty gave up seven hits and six runs over six innings, walking four and striking out five.
"We've got to win games," Beckett said. "We're not going to do it when the starting pitcher gives up six runs when most of the guys got in at 4 in the morning."
Countless times in his career, Beckett has come up big when his team needed it most. However, he has given up 12 earned runs in his last two starts, both of which have been against the Orioles.
"It's baseball," said Beckett. "You can't be [bad] when your team needs you. That's tough. But that's the way it is."
Going into the bottom of the sixth, it was a 2-2 game. Chris Davis -- who had tied it with an RBI single in the fifth -- put the O's ahead with an RBI double down the line in right in the sixth.
"I couldn't make pitches when I needed to," Beckett said. "I tried to bounce the changeup to Davis there. I leave it up, and he serves it to right field down the line."
Then Andino took his big swing, and the night unraveled.
The Sox still had some chances. In the eighth, Gonzalez singled, Jed Lowrie walked and J.D. Drew singled, loading them up with one out. But Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out and Marco Scutaro grounded out, ending that threat.
In the ninth, the Sox would again move the tying run to the plate against O's closer Jim Johnson. Ellsbury was hit by a pitch. With one out, Pedroia raked a single to right to bring in Ellsbury. David Ortiz had an infield hit, and Gonzalez, who has 27 homers and 117 RBIs, was the tying run. But he struck out. So, too, did Jed Lowrie, to end the ballgame.
For a team that is 29 games out of first place, the Orioles have had a lot to say about the AL Wild Card race over the last week.
"They're a good baseball team that played with a lot of effort tonight and were scratching and clawing the whole way," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "It was a good baseball game with two teams playing at a high-intensity level. Some nights it works out for us."
The Red Sox got some early firepower in the second, when J.D. Drew led off with a single to right. With two down, Ellsbury lashed an RBI double down the line in left and Boston had a 1-0 lead.
It took one swing for the Orioles to get the run back, as Matt Wieters belted a one-out solo shot off Beckett in the bottom of the second.
Lowrie answered in the top of the fourth, smashing a solo shot against Orioles starter Tommy Hunter, just his second of the year from the left side of the plate.
"If we win every game, we're in the playoffs," said Gonzalez. "It's definitely in our hands."
But the Rays are lurking, trying desperately to rip it right out of their hands.