Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz reacts during his...

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz reacts during his second-inning at-bat, in which he flied out to left field at Yankee Stadium. (May 17, 2010) Credit: AP

The attributes that made the Red Sox so tough to play during the past decade suddenly have disappeared. Remember that relentless lineup, top-flight rotation and deep bullpen they used to have? It's all gone.

And that best explains why the Red Sox this season have been, well, rather ordinary.

Through nearly a quarter of their schedule, the Red Sox entered last night's game at 19-19. The last time they had a .500 record this late in the season was 1997, and they finished that season at 78-84.

No one in the Red Sox clubhouse thinks this extended slow start is a sign of things to come, but it certainly is troublesome.

"We need everybody to step it up and play better," Dustin Pedroia said. "Nineteen and 19 in this division is not going to cut it. We're going to have to play better. Everyone has to."

A big problem with the Red Sox is that they have so many problems. Injuries have sidelined two-thirds of their starting outfield (Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron). Their rotation has an ERA that is better than only the Royals in the AL. And their roster is filled with players who are not performing up to their usual numbers.

Ace Josh Beckett has a 7.46 ERA and slugger Victor Martinez entered hitting .226. David Ortiz homered last night but his overall poor performance has some scouts wondering if he'll ever again resemble the fearsome slugger he used to be. That a recent 12-for-28 stretch raised his average to .232 tells you how much he was struggling.

So it's not hard to understand why facing the Yankees was a bit of an afterthought to Red Sox players. They have enough on their minds right now.

"It doesn't matter who we're playing, we've just got to play good baseball," Pedroia said. "We know the Yankees, Tampa and the Blue Jays are playing great, so we're going to have to play well for a long period of time to get back in this. We're confident we can do that."

Terry Francona dropped Martinez from third to fifth in the lineup, a move he said was designed to give his lineup more balance, not jump-start his catcher. He entered hitting .280 with two homers and five RBIs in six games against the Yanks, and homered again in the sixth and eighth innings, but the fact that he began the game with three homers and 17 RBIs overall remains one of their top problems. What's wrong? "If I knew, I would be out of it, you know?" he said. "I just keep working."

He said the fact that he's in his walk year is not on his mind. "I just keep coming here, keep working, keep working," he said, "and we'll see what happens."

All Boston can do is look at his history and trust he'll hit his 25 home runs with 100 RBIs. "He's a good hitter, and he's going to be a good hitter," Francona said. "You can just see the normal 'he's trying to do too much.' He's trying to hit it a little too hard. That's just the way it goes."

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