Did that really just happen? I cannot tell you how many times I awoke the last couple nights in a startled state thinking it had all been a bad dream. The nightmare is a reality, though. What could arguably be the single greatest night in the history of baseball’s regular season will leave Boston fans with another wound in their Red Sox memory bank – one that will surely leave a scar.
Many people in the New England area over the next few days will be looking for things to blame and people to point their fingers toward to try and determine who is responsible for this historic collapse, but they needn’t look further than the guys seen hunched over in the Red Sox dugout in Baltimore Wednesday night.
A nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays on September 2nd looked as comfortable for these Red Sox as one of those plush sofas from Jordan’s furniture featured on so many commercials on NESN during the games. And maybe that was the problem – complacency. I’m not sure what it was – no sense of urgency, a lack of heart, or maybe just a combination of all of these – but there was definitely something lacking with this team.
It’s not as if the Rays played out of their minds and just willed their way to this playoff berth either. Tampa Bay gave the Red Sox ample opportunities to punch its ticket to the postseason, but time after time they failed to take advantage. It’s almost as if fate stepped in and told them, “Alright, you want to wait until the very last day to try and wrap this thing up? Then take this!”
It wasn’t only that they lost and the Rays won in game 162, it was the cruel manner in which it all played out that, in the end, was an almost fitting final chapter to this stretch of futility. It was another meltdown inside a series of countless meltdowns that led to this collapse. Personally, I don’t believe in curses or jinxes or anything of that nature, but when you take everything into account that had to happen in order for this historic plunge to be completed, it really starts to make one wonder.
The New York Yankees were up 7-0 on the Tampa Bay Rays going into the bottom of the 8th inning. Red Sox fans everywhere were rejoicing as the Sox had a slim 3-2 lead which meant, at the very worst; we were looking at a game 163 in Tampa for the rights to reach October. That’s when the aforementioned fate took over and completely altered the course of events of that night.
After the Rays scored six runs in the bottom of the 8th inning, it looked as if their heroic comeback was going to fall short as they were down to their last strike with pinch-hitter Dan Johnson and his .108 batting average at the plate. Corey Wade, who had a 2.04 ERA for the Yankees this season, couldn’t finish him off as Johnson crushed a 2-2 offering for a game-tying solo shot. Dan Johnson had not hit a home run since April 8th, which ironically was the day that the Red Sox won their first game this year following a 0-6 start.
Even more remarkable, the New York Yankees had not blown a seven-run lead in the 8th inning or later since 1953. Extra innings ensued and the Red Sox continued to hang on to a one-run cushion. After a lengthy rain delay, play continued and in a sequence that was typical of their misfortunes in September, Marco Scutaro was thrown out after he slipped while rounding the bases; a huge run that would have doubled the Sox lead and given them a little breathing room.
The Sox game went to the bottom of the 9th just as the Yankees and Rays entered the 12th inning of their game. Jonathan Papelbon came to the mound throwing fire balls as he promptly struck out the first two batters with relative ease. Down to their final strike with nobody on base, the Baltimore Orioles appeared finished and the Red Sox looked as though they’d finally break through and experience something positive in a month filled with nothing but trials and despair. Papelbon couldn’t seal the deal and blew his third save of the season and his second in September.
Through 161 games, the Red Sox were 77-0 in games when leading going into the 9th inning this season. Game 162 had a different script written. Just as quickly as the Red Sox thought they had the game won, it was snatched from right underneath them and they, once again, left their postseason chances in the hands of fate. But fate wasn’t wearing a Red Sox uniform the night of September 28th.
Just three minutes after the Sox walked off the field hanging their heads in defeat while a team who had lost 93 games celebrated in the background, Evan Longoria ripped a low line drive down the left field line that barely cleared a section of the wall that appeared to be about three feet tall, and that was it. The Sox tempted fate one last time and just as they had for most of September; they lost.
Remember that stat I mentioned earlier about the last time the Yankees had lost a game in which they held a seven-run lead? That was in 1953. That was 58 years ago. Jonathan Papelbon was on the mound trying to save the game as the Rays batted in the bottom of the 12th. He wears jersey number 58. Coincidence? Probably. But it certainly is funny the way things work out sometimes.
In reality, the Red Sox didn’t deserve it, plain and simple. Although a couple key injuries contributed to this historic collapse, they proved to be a team that displayed almost no resolve and no determination when they needed it most. The season can really be summed up by two dreadful periods: The first 12 games of the season and last 12 games.
A 2-10 start to the season had every one in Red Sox nation panicking. No team had ever started that poorly and ever made the playoffs and thanks to Boston’s finish, that stat still holds true. The downfall was their pitching. Over those first 12 games, their team ERA was 6.58. They were outscored by their opponents 79-46. Their record in the final 12 games of the season was 3-9 with a team ERA of 6.33. They gave up 76 runs over that span while only scoring 39. The numbers are equally horrifying and eerily similar.
This team was bad early and they were bad late. They might have been the best team in baseball for the four months in between, but can we really be surprised that a team that was a mess to begin with and that fell apart at the end didn’t make the playoffs?
Is it one individual’s fault that Clay Buchholz broke his back leaving the pitching staff thin and exposed? No. Is there any one person responsible for the incredibly mediocre performance we got from perennial All-Star Carl Crawford, besides the player himself? No. Is it fair to assign blame to one person that John Lackey had the worst season for any starting pitcher in Red Sox history? No. But baseball is a cruel game and in this cut-throat business someone will be forced to take the fall.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox organization it appears as though Terry Francona will be that sacrificial lamb, and it’s a real shame. He has been one of Boston’s greatest managers, bringing two World Series titles, casting aside the curses and revitalizing a franchise mired in despair. He has restored hope in a very proud organization and has elevated its status to one of the elite. Although his potentially last moments with the Sox will be some of the most forgettable, if indeed his time is finished, he will be regarded as one of the most memorable managers ever and if the rumors of his departure are true, he will be sorely missed.