Understanding how Boston blew its chances at a playoff spot this year
"You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains."
-Ebby Calvin "Nuke" Laloosh in Bull Durham.
Let us not talk of a curse. The Curse is over, dead and buried in 2004, when the angels finally came out of hiding for the Boston Red Sox and led that band of self-proclaimed "idiots" to their first World Series victory in 86 years. There was nothing cursed about the 2011 Red Sox. They didn't make baseball history with an epic collapse because they let Johnny Damon leave, first for the dreaded New York Yankees and then to the plucky Tampa Bay Rays. They didn't just blow a nine-game wildcard lead in September because they let the Farrelly Brothers film Fever Pitch at Fenway Park with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon.
No, the Red Sox this year were not cursed. The team and its fans are not victims of some ethereal injustice. The Babe can rest in peace. The team was simply awful; bereft of heart, soul, stamina, focus, verve, and grace under pressure. It didn't lose hard-fought games it deserved to win. The Gods (and the umpires) didn't snatch defeat away from the jaws of victory. The Sox lost because they deserved to lose, because in the end, when they went 7-20 to finish the season, they were unable to go more than a few innings, sometimes no more than a few outs, without playing terrible baseball. There are no 1986 Bill Buckners on this team. There are no 1946 Johnny Peskys. No 1975 Ed Armbrister did them in. It wasn't just a single play or a single game.
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The 2004 championship team famously may have taken shots of Jack Daniel's before playoff games, but at least it was clutch. The 2011 team was unable to win two games in a row the entire month of September. The 2007 championship team played like the professionals they were, remorselessly overcoming their opponents with decent pitching, timely hitting and smart play. The 2011 team had the league's worst ERA for the month of September, the heart of its lineup was unable to hit when it counted, and the team offered up an error-per-game pace during the final stretch.
I watched the better part of at least 125 Red Sox games this year. (Yes, I know, that's hundreds of hours of my life I will never get back.) I watched when the team got off to its 2-10 start. I watched when they played inspired ball for four glorious months and then I watched (what I could stand, anyway) of the collapse. So that my effort was not in vain, so that future generations of Sox fans—like my son and his son—are not addled with silly talk of curses and jinxes and manifest destiny, here is my testimony as a witness for the truly indefensible:
You throw the ball.
No Red Sox team in history—110 years of history—has ever pitched as poorly as this Red Sox team pitched during September. And no team in Major League Baseball this year had a worse earned run average for the month. This despite the presence in the rotation of two star pitchers, the righty Josh Beckett and the lefty Jon Lester, who have long been considered among the best in the American League. For the month, the pair were a combined 1-5 with an ERA just south of six, a formula that helps explain why a first-place team on September 3rd would subsequently flame out and miss the playoffs on the last night of the season.
One of the goats of the final game was Jonathan Papelbon, the star reliever, who, 1986-like, got the team within one out, within one strike, of winning. But the collapse of the Red Sox pitching staff is perhaps best illustrated by a sequence during the fifth inning of Monday night's game against the Baltimore Orioles. The Sox's best starting pitcher, 2003 World Series MVP Beckett, was facing leftfielder Matt Angle, a young player who looks like he could be a cast member on the Disney Channel show Wizards of Waverly Place. There were two men on base and a run already had scored for Baltimore, tying the score at 2-2.
Did Beckett challenge Angle, who at .177 was hitting well below baseball's Mendoza Line? No. Did he force the overwhelmed young player to put the ball in play? No. Beckett nibbled around the edges like he was pitching to Albert (not Luis) Pujols, wasted precious pitches in doing so, and then walked the kid to load the bases. The Orioles didn't score again that inning but Beckett was spent—and then trashed by the O's in the 6th to take another loss. Papelbon? The veteran closer, who helped the team win the Series in 2007, told reporters after Wednesday's game that he had been overthrowing the ball. He also said the game would not define him. Good luck with that, Jonathan.
You catch the ball.
The Red Sox are not a bad defensive team. In fact, they rank third in the American League with only 92 errors this season. But it seems as though most of those came in the past few weeks. Indeed, at the end, they went through a streak where they committed 16 errors in just 11 games. And they didn't just commit your run-of-the-mill errors which did not impact the outcomes of the games they were playing. They committed the we-look-like-the-Bad-News-Bears sorts of errors which proved decisive.