For Braves and Red Sox, no easy answers

BOSTON -- A Jimi Hendrix song played in Fenway Park after the Red Sox failed to score in the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday night, after Boston had fallen behind again, and at the moment the music died -- that instant of transition when there was a perfect silence in a ballpark frozen by confusion -- a fan near the home dugout yelled out. He was loud enough that the Red Sox players probably heard him.

Hey, Red Sox, he screamed, "Jimi Hendrix has more life than you guys."

It wasn't long after that Boston players who previously had the best record in the majors this dressed quietly in an almost silent clubhouse and tried to explain how they've lost 16 of their past 21 games. "We are all confused right now," David Ortiz said.

There is little time for the Red Sox -- and the Atlanta Braves, for that matter -- to find answers in the playoff races:

NL wild card: Derek Lowe, who was so brilliant last September in leading the Atlanta to the playoffs, lost again, David O'Brien writes.

The Cardinals beat the Mets and are hot on the heels of the Braves, Derrick Goold writes. The team is keeping the faith, writes Rick Hummel.

From Rick's story:

"We've played ourselves back into this," manager Tony La Russa said. "You can feel it, hear it. The dugout's on fire. The real fun is playing meaningful games at this time of year."

But La Russa added, "We've been feeling like we've been in this thing as soon as we started playing good. It's been two, three weeks we've been doing it."

Chipper Jones missed the start of Wednesday's game after returning home to be with his 7-year-old son, who had sinus surgery.

Three pitchers are trying to work their way back from injury for the Braves, but it's unclear whether Jair Jurrjens and Kris Medlen can return quickly enough to help at any point.

On paper, the Cardinals have a clear advantage in the remaining schedule: After facing the Mets today, they have home games versus the Cubs and three games at Houston. On the other hand, the Braves have to face the Nationals and the Phillies.

The Giants are hanging in the race as well after gaining ground with a win over the Dodgers; San Francisco is 3.5 games behind the Braves. Brian Wilson is clearly not 100 percent, writes Andrew Baggarly within this notebook.

AL wild card: The Angels are now just 2.5 games behind the Red Sox, after beating the Blue Jays. Along the way, however, Dan Haren took a line drive off his left wrist. From Kevin Baxter's story:

The ball bounced to second baseman Maicer Izturis, who threw to first for the out as Haren writhed near the mound in obvious pain. He was examined by doctors at the stadium and a Fluoroscan -- sort of a high-tech X-ray -- read normal.

"It definitely hurt," said Haren, who matched a career high with his 16th win. "He smoked it. He hit it so hard I didn't even see the ball."

From ESPN Stats & Info, how Haren won:

A. Seventy of Haren's 114 pitches (61.4 percent) were in the outer third of the strike zone or farther outside, Haren's highest percentage of the season and well above his season average of 44.6 percent. Blue Jays hitters were 2-for-17 in at-bats ending with an outside pitch from Haren. Ten of the 15 outside pitches the Blue Jays put in play against Haren were ground balls.

B. Haren especially kept the ball away from right-handed hitters. Thirty-five of his 45 pitches (77.8 percent) to righties were outside. Right-handed hitters were 1-for-13 against Haren, including 1-for-11 in at-bats ending with an outside pitch.

C. Haren had great command of his cutter. Forty-seven of his 54 cutters (87.0 percent) were to his glove side (in to lefties, away from righties). Blue Jays hitters were 1-for-12 in at-bats ending with a Haren cutter, with Blue Jays righties going 0-for-9 against the pitch.

Josh Beckett was seemingly in control as the top of the sixth inning started, throwing his fastball in the mid-90s, spinning a great early-inning curveball. But then he hung a curve to Mark Reynolds -- who had seemed to be anticipating the pitch -- and the game was tied. Then, Vladimir Guerrero mashed a two-run single. A day that had started out with great possibilities for the Red Sox ended with silence for Boston.

It was another Boston collapse, writes Brian MacPherson. The Red Sox deserved the boos they heard, writes Michael Silverman. Mistakes cost Beckett.

Incredibly, though, the Red Sox gained ground on the Rays during the day, because Tampa Bay was swept in a doubleheader. It's ugly, but it's not over, writes Marc Topkin.

Ben Zobrist rejoined the Rays. Matt Moore will start for Tampa Bay Thursday.

The Orioles have hammered each of the three wild-card contenders in the past 10 days, and it was Reynolds who administered the biggest blows on Wednesday. It was the first time the Orioles had won a four-game series at Fenway Park since 2003.

From ESPN Stats & Info: Beckett made the mistake of coming inside to Reynolds twice, and both times it resulted in a home run. Reynolds has done better this season against inside pitches than against outside pitches.

His first home run reached an apex of 161 feet, the highest of any home run hit this season.

• In talking with officials around baseball, it's apparent that some teams are moving closer to addressing the physical conditioning of their players for most of the calendar year. More and more, executives are privately expressing frustration when players either arrive in spring training out of shape or fall out of condition during the course of the season.

"We're going to raise the standard [of expectation]," one general manager said. "There's no excuse for a player to be out of shape, with everything that's available to them."

There is so much money invested in the players, another executive said, that a team should be able to expect that conditioning is not an impediment to performance.

The players' union undoubtedly would have something to say if any team tried to force compliance on a year-round program. But some teams have started to send strength and conditioning coaches to visit with players in the fall in an effort to ensure that players are not behind in their preparation for spring training.

No. 2 seed in the AL: With home runs from Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler, the Rangers cut their magic number to three. Adrian Beltre has been raking.

The Tigers won as well, with Max Scherzer and Doug Fister combining for the victory. As John Lowe writes, Fister or Scherzer could start Game 2 of the playoffs.

No. 2 seed in the NL: The Diamondbacks jumped on the Pirates and pulled to within a game of the Brewers, who were shut down by Matt Garza. Randy Wolf got hit by a pitch but wasn't making any excuses, Todd Rosiak writes.

The Yankees: They clinched the AL East with a tiebreaking hit from Jorge Posada -- who acknowledged after the game that when he got the hit, he thought it was the bottom of the ninth inning. It was the perfect end to this season for Posada.

Most division titles in the wild-card era (since 1995):

Yankees -- 12

Braves -- 11

Cardinals -- 7

Indians -- 7

Twins -- 6

Most postseason appearances in the wild-card era (since 1995):

Yankees -- 16

Braves -- 12

Red Sox -- 9

Cardinals -- 8

Indians -- 7

The Phillies: They've lost five straight games after their latest defeat. From Ray Parrillo's story:

The Phillies have been in a dreadful hitting funk. Wednesday was only the second time they have scored more than three runs in the last 14 games.

"I'm concerned about it, yeah, but at the same time I've seen them hit and I think they'll hit," [Charlie] Manuel said.

Reliever Antonio Bastardo did nothing to alleviate concerns about him in the inning he pitched. Bastardo inherited a no-out, two-on situation in the eighth after Justin De Fratus hit one batter and walked another. Both runners Bastardo inherited scored, as did a third. The left-hander gave up two hits and was charged with a run.

Hunter Pence has a patellar tendon strain.

Don't worry, the Phillies will wake up for the playoffs, writes Rich Hofmann.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Oakland Athletics suddenly are on the side of leverage in light of the front-office changes the Giants will try to make, writes Mark Purdy.

2. A talent evaluator on Michael Cuddyer, a prospective free agent: "There is going to be a lot of action on him this winter." Cuddyer is versatile, he's productive, and he's known within baseball as one of the sport's best leaders.

3. An attorney hopes that a letter will help Jim Crane's effort to buy the Astros, David Barron writes.

4. Not surprisingly, the Reds intend to pick up the option of Brandon Phillips.

5. Bankruptcy doesn't mean the Dodgers can't offer big contracts, writes Bill Shaikin. Frank McCourt is trying to alter his deal with Fox, Steve Dilbeck writes.

6. Gerrit Cole is lined up and ready to go for the Arizona Fall League, Neal Huntington says within this notebook.

7. Chris Snyder wants to stick with the Pirates, Rob Biertempfel writes.

8. Oakland formally announced Bob Melvin's extension, John Shea writes.

9. A source believes the Mets will settle their Madoff case.

10. The Royals made a roster move -- they designated a first baseman for assignment, Bob Dutton writes.

11. One way or the other, Aramis Ramirez is going to test free agency.

Dings and dents

1. Pudge Rodriguez is expected to start two more games this season. It appears that he and Omar Vizquel will both fall short in their respective pursuits of 3,000 hits. Rodriguez is 158 hits shy of 3,000, and Vizquel needs 159 hits, after getting 42 this year.

2. Brett Lawrie broke a finger and will miss the rest of the year.

Wednesday's games

1. The Nationals are finishing their season strongly -- they have taken three of four from the Phillies in a series that ends Thursday.

2. The Mariners won Michael Pineda's final start of the season, writes Pat Borzi.

3. Ross Ohlendorf was hit hard again.

4. The Athletics gave up some home runs.

5. The Royals lost their home finale.

6. The Twins have dropped 11 straight, and it looks like the team's slide could last a long time, writes Patrick Reusse.

7. The Padres completed a sweep, writes Bill Center.

8. The Rockies finished their worst homestand ever with another loss, Troy Renck writes.

9. Javier Vazquez was The Man for the Marlins, Craig Davis writes.

10. Ubaldo Jimenez faltered in the seventh.

The Patience Index

Other stuff

Kenley Jansen has emerged as a dominant setup man.

• The champagne celebrations are a waste, writes Frank Fitzpatrick.

• Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland have silenced skeptics, writes Bob Wojnowski.

Drew Stubbs is a little lost at the plate now in a season of 200 strikeouts, writes Tom Groeschen.

J.J. Putz deserves a lot of credit for what the Diamondbacks have won.

• Grady Fuson is painted as a villain in "Moneyball," writes Mac Engel.

Tim Lincecum beat himself up.

Mark Buehrle might be pitching his final game for the White Sox.

• Mike Quade was doomed from the start.

• The Mets' hitters sound happy about the alterations on the horizon for Citi Field.

Chuck Knoblauch is leading a reclusive retirement, writes Amelia Rayno.

And today will be better than yesterday.