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10/15/08 1:08 AM ET

What's wrong with the Red Sox?

Solid starting pitching, clutch hitting both lacking vs. Rays

BOSTON -- "Who are these guys?" TBS analyst Buck Martinez wondered aloud as the out-of-control Game 4 of the American League Championship Series entered the late innings Tuesday night.

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Martinez, suitably impressed, had raised his rhetorical question about the Tampa Bay Rays, who were in the process of putting a 13-4 hurt on the Red Sox.

However, he could just as well have been wondering about the defending World Series champions.

Who are those guys in the Boston uniforms?

Are those really the Red Sox surrendering 31 runs in three straight postseason games?

Are those really the Red Sox suffering consecutive postseason blowouts in Fenway Park by a combined 22-5?

Are those really the Red Sox being out-homered 7-1 in the shadow of the Green Monster?

Are those really Red Sox starting pitchers regularly taking the mound with shovels, burying their team in deep holes by allowing 14 runs within the first three innings of three straight losses?

What is going on here?

"We certainly need to figure it out," said Boston manager Terry Francona. "The quicker we get to our bullpen, we certainly make it harder on ourselves. We've had a difficult time. We have not had an answer for a lot of things."

Worst back-to-back Sox losses in 2008
Oct. 13-14
9-1, 13-4
Sept. 26, 28
19-8, 6-2
Aug. 16-17
4-1, 15-4
April 5-6
at Tor.
10-2, 7-4
July 29-30
6-2, 9-2

But Francona would have a quick answer to the question, "What's wrong with the Red Sox?"

It's not the hitting, as soft as it has been. The Boston lineup has felt like greyhounds chasing the rabbit unleashed by the big early leads surrendered by their starters.

In Saturday's Game 2, the Red Sox trailed 4-3 after three. Monday, it was 5-1. Tuesday, 5-0.

"We've got to get a quality start, and give ourselves a chance to do something offensively," said Jason Varitek, Boston's catcher and captain.

And within the hitting, the problem is not David Ortiz. He is the target, but only shares culpability for Boston's untimely attack.

"The problem is, everyone is focused on Papi not hitting," Ortiz said. "I'll tell you the truth, in both series [the Division Series against the Angels and the ALCS], Papi does not come up with men on base all the time.

"So I'm not gonna change the game when we're losing by nine, 10 runs."

Ortiz, who snapped his 0-for-12 series with a seventh-inning triple, has batted with eight men on base during the first four games on the ALCS -- only two of them in scoring position.

He has also gone 45 at-bats without a home run since Sept. 22, growing evidence that full strength has yet to return to the left wrist in which a tendon injury had shelved him for nearly two months in the middle of the season.

Ortiz shrugs off any remaining physical problems, but Francona's evasiveness when asked the same thing could be telling.

"I don't think he's perfect," Francona said after some hesitation, "but I don't want to sit him. If he takes one good swing ... even when he's scuffling, that could change a ballgame."

The absence of Manny Ramirez behind him in the lineup is a popular theory for the drop in Ortiz's production. The October difference is dramatic: Whereas the two formed a poisonous one-two postseason punch for years, without Ramirez's backup Ortiz is 5-for-33 in these playoffs, with only one RBI.

Yet, in the bigger picture, Papi has coped well without Ramirez.

Prior to Ramirez's July 31 trade to the Dodgers, Ortiz batted .266 with 14 homers and 47 RBIs in 60 games.

Following the trade of Ramirez, Ortiz batted .262 in 49 games, with nine homers and 42 RBIs.

Certainly comparable numbers.

But talking about anyone's offensive numbers seemed futile in a Boston locker room shell-shocked by Tampa Bay's continuing mistreatment of its pitchers.

"They're all locked in," Ortiz said, shaking his head. "I've been in a lot of playoffs, and I've never seen this. You might have three, four guys really hitting well, but that entire team over there is raking.

"We need to focus and stop their offense."

At the very least, they need to keep it from another fast start on Thursday. The Rays' early game production has totally taken the traditionally rabid Fenway crowds out of the games and, for the Red Sox, the silence has been defeating.

"We have to find a way to get our crowd involved," Varitek said. "So we have to come out, ready to play. We need to get the fans into the game."

One other element missed by the Red Sox is not coming back anytime soon. Third baseman Mike Lowell -- only the MVP of last fall's World Series -- is scheduled for an operation on his painful hip condition, and he tried to blend into the clubhouse furniture.

"I don't think it would be right for me to try to assess how my absence from the lineup has hurt. I don't think that would be right," said Lowell, before excusing himself.

"As a non-player, I really don't want to say anymore."

Having to classify himself as a "non-player" of course said enough.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.