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Red Sox' season (un)officially over after Astros deliver knockout punch at Fenway

BOSTON -- The Red Sox were never really in a playoff race. But they appeared to be in a playoff race for some time. They were close enough to contention for the third wild-card spot without ever actually being in position to secure that third wild-card spot. And so, the illusion of contention lived on through much of the summer.

Now, though, the facade can be put to bed. The race for a playoff spot, such as it was, is over. The Red Sox have lost the race.

That much was made abundantly clear by the visiting Houston Astros, who followed up the Dodgers' series win at Fenway by mercilessly pulverizing the inferior home team over the course of three days. A 13-5 drubbing on Monday night featured the Red Sox literally waving a white flag, a sad scene that set the stage for two more Red Sox losses on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Brayan Bello, the Red Sox' only hope, couldn't get through the fifth inning on Tuesday, with Alex Cora yanking the starter after 82 pitches. In the late afternoon affair on Wednesday, Kutter Crawford turned in his shortest start of the season, getting pummeled for six earned runs in just 2.2 innings.

The Boston bats tried to mount a comeback but came up short in both tries.

Having now played the Astros -- the team ahead of them in standings -- seven times in 10 days, the Red Sox went 2-5, getting outscored 48-35 and, generally, outclassed across the board.

Now the Red Sox, who entered the weekend series with the Dodgers 3.5 games out of a playoff spot, now sit 6.5 games out with just 28 games to play. They still have seven games left against the Orioles (83-50), five games against the Rays (82-52) and three games against the Blue Jays (73-61).

It is over. O-V-E-R. Better luck next year.

Now, some astute observers have figured that to be the case all summer. The smoke-and-mirrors approach of not having a starting rotation while also not employing an MLB-caliber shortstop until August was doomed from the start. The belief that the trade deadline "haul" of Chris Sale, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock would make a difference was a flawed conclusion.

The point now is simple anyway: If your "playoff contention," such as it is, can be derailed by one single six-game homestand against a pair of good teams, then you never really had much "playoff contention" to begin with.

The fact is, the Red Sox haven't actually been in playoff position since May 10, when they were 22-16. They've had several opportunities to get back into the playoff picture but have come up well short each time. With a chance to beat up on a bad Cardinals team at Fenway while in playoff position in May, the Red Sox instead got swept. The Red Sox sat 1.5 games behind Houston entering a series in Los Angeles against the mediocre Angeles; the Red Sox got swept. They lost two of three in Chicago to the dreadful White Sox, then got swept at home by the Marlins to close out June, dropping to 40-42. A 10-2 stretch after that had them at 50-44 and feeling pretty good about themselves; they then lost a series in Oakland to the worst team in baseball. Coming out of the trade deadline, the Red Sox were two games behind the visiting Blue Jays. A series sweep would have put the Sox in playoff position. A sweep did happen at Fenway that weekend ... but it did not go in the Red Sox' favor.

And so it went, and so it's gone. The Red Sox are what we thought they were, which means another October with no baseball in Boston. Forget October -- there won't even be meaningful baseball in September.

The only competition left now is a race for last place between the Red Sox and their bitter rivals in New York, as Boston hopes to save some dignity by avoiding a last-place finish for the third time in four years. For a franchise that used to try to build a true contender every year, the current approach appears to be building teams that are just good enough to almost snag the last playoff spot available. Things sure have changed around these parts.

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