TORONTO -- It wasn't exactly smothered with panic, but David Ortiz' comments after the Red Sox' latest loss did offer somewhat of a warning shot.
"We have to. We definitely have to," Ortiz said when asked if his team needed to start gaining some sort of momentum. "We can't be losing three games out of four against the Blue Jays. Not because they're not allowed to win, but because we've played better than they have this year. We have to figure things out.
"This is the time of year everybody is pretty much beat up. We're good at hanging on, but this is the time of year all the crazy things over the course of the season catches up to you."
The problem for the Red Sox is that because of their troubles with the Blue Jays, and ensuing trip to Tampa Bay, the conversation has changed. No longer is it all about roping in health and a hot streak for October. Simply hanging on has also become somewhat of an issue.
The Red Sox most likely still shouldn't be too concerned. With 19 games to play, they hold a 6 1/2-game lead over the Rays for the wild card spot, while still firmly in the mix for the division, sitting 2 1/2 games in back of the first-place Yankees. But …
The Sox can no longer think cruise control, which was the exact appearance they gave against the Jays. Mostly because they simply haven't been playing well, having lost seven of their last 10. During that stretch, Terry Francona's team has the second-worst ERA in the majors (5.82), with its starters' ERA totaling 5.71 and relievers coming in at an even worse 5.97.
As one person on the Blue Jays side of things observed Thursday: "[The Red Sox] just look flat."
It's an image that simply can't continue this weekend, for obvious reasons. Friday will be the first of seven games against Tampa Bay the rest of the way. With the Rays lining up starters, they could be considered the favorites each step of the way in the three-game series.
"We’re all trying to do good things and we’re trying to win games," noted Dustin Pedroia. "It’s that time of year where we’ve got to do that. It will turn.”
Here are some things that the Red Sox will have to do in the very near future if they are going to put the anxiety in the rear-view mirror.
DON'T LET RAYS PITCHING GET ON A ROLL
During this recent downturn, the Red Sox have hit, totaling the third-highest OPS in baseball (.857), while managing the fourth-most runs (57). But this will be new kind of challenge. They will be going up against a Tampa Bay staff that is built to offer additional frustration for already frustrated opponents.
No collection of starters in the American League has been better since Aug. 1, with Joe Maddon's starting staff claiming an ERA a full run better than that of the Red Sox starters over that time.
Tampa Bay has three starting pitchers -- James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price -- with ERAs 2.44 or better since the beginning of August, with Shields (2.03) and Hellickson (2.16) slated to pitch the final two games of the upcoming series at Tropicana Field.
In their last four games against the Rays, the Red Sox have totaled just six runs. In all this season, Tampa Bay pitchers have a 2.74 ERA against the Sox, with Joe Maddon's starters going at least eight innings in each of their last four appearances against the Red Sox, surrendering a combined five runs.
It is a dynamic that, this series aside, you do not want to bank on beating when looking to seal a season.
GET YOUKILIS AND PEDROIA GOING AGAIN
Since returning from the disabled list, the third baseman simply hasn't looked like the middle-of-the-order presence the Red Sox have become accustomed to. In seven games, he is hitting .185 with an OPS of .572 and just two RBIs.
Francona tried moving Youkilis behind Ortiz a few times in the Blue Jays series, but no matter where he hit there wasn't the usual vibe of a run-producer. In fact, he now hasn't had a hit with runners in scoring position since July 30. This is a player who had the best OPS of all third basemen (.861) prior to his stint on the DL.
As for Pedroia, he has found himself in one of his worst five-game slumps of the season, having gone 1-for-23 while striking out six times and not walking once. As he explained after the Sox' 7-4 loss Thursday, "I've pretty much had five [expletive] games. That's basically it."
Pedroia's batting average also dipped below .300 for the first time since July 25.
"He's trying a little too hard," Francona said. "He feels so much responsibility when we're not clicking to do it by himself. That's one of the characteristics we love about him. When he doesn't get hits, and I mean I want him to get hits, but we don't worry about him very much."
FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY HAVE IN ALBERS
It's easy to identify what Matt Albers has done since Aug. 1. He hasn't been good, totaling an 11.15 ERA while giving up 25 hits and nine walks in 15 1/3 innings. And just to magnify the issue, the Red Sox' record when the reliever has pitched over that span is just 3-12.
But it's not that easy.
The Sox need the Albers of old, and there might be hints that that pitcher is still kicking around.
Francona referenced prior to Thursday's game that the righty's stuff was still there, a statement some might have chalked up to a manager simply supporting his player. But it's true. According to BaseballAnalytics.org, in his last four appearances, Albers has thrown 37 of his 57 fastballs at 94 mph or better, hitting 95 mph 17 times.
And since Aug. 1, of the reliever's 205 fastballs, 85 have been at 94 mph or better. That is a higher rate than his stretch through July when just 22 of his 111 heaters touched at least 94 mph. The difference, however, is that on those pitches that reached that velocity in July, hitters managed just a .167 clip, while such fastballs from Aug. 1 and on have been greeted with a .389 average.
In the strike zone (.372) or out of the strike zone (.357), hitters have been managing to solve Albers' fastball. What he will need is more days like Thursday, where he managed just his second clean outing since July 25.
Whether it's Dan Wheeler, Clay Buchholz or Albers, the Red Sox desperately need to find that fourth high-leverage bullpen arm. And the 28-year-old might just offer that solution, once again.