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.
Outfielder Carl Crawford, one of their prize off-season acquisitions, a talented veteran who was supposed to be good at the plate and great in the field, was terrible all year long. Last Saturday, for example, in a game the Sox needed to win on the road against the New York Yankees, Crawford botched a fly ball in the second inning that doomed the team. On the final night of the season—on the Sox final play of the season--Crawford was unable to catch a catchable ball that would have sent the game into extra innings and given the Sox a chance to face Tampa Bay in a one-game play-in. Afterward, Zen-like, Crawford said, "If I should have caught it, I could have caught it,'' whatever that means.
That was dramatic—and surely symbolic of all that went wrong for this team this month. But my favorite inconceivable Red Sox defensive moment came a week earlier, this time at Fenway Park, when Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald (who at times this year looked like he couldn't hit a can of corn if it were under-handed to him) misplayed not one but two balls in the same inning of a game against Baltimore. The glare from the sun was bad, it was said, which is a tried-and-true loser's lament in baseball. Watching that inning live, I thought of Casey Stengel and the hapless 1962 Mets (who, not for nothing, had a better September record than the Sox this year): "Can't anyone here play this game?"
You hit the ball
There was a time—last century and earlier this season—when the Red Sox could overcome poor pitching and bad defense with strong hitting. That time is not this time. The heart of the Red Sox order was crippled by injury, bad swings and an utter lack of clutch play. David Ortiz, the 3-hitter, was virtually impotent in September—he was suffering from an injury, it was said. Kevin Youkilis, the cleanup hitter, hardly played at all during September because of a sports hernia and bursitis. Adrian Gonzalez, the 5-hitter who came over from the San Diego Padres, put up great numbers for the year but never gave the team the hit it needed when it needed it. They all popped the clutch, you could say.
Take Wednesday's game, for example. The Sox were 2-11 with runners in scoring position. They had a runner—Marco Scutaro—thrown out at home in the eighth inning because he had hesitated running the bases. They had another runner—David Ortiz—thrown out at second base in the seventh inning trying to stretch a single into a double. All season long, the Sox padded their statistics with routs, scoring 10, 12, 18 runs a game. But on Wednesday night, when they need a single—or a sacrifice fly, for christsakes—they were unable to get one. As one wag said earlier this month after Carl Crawford was unable to lay down a sacrifice, "20 million a year and the guy can't bunt."
"Gods don't answer letters," John Updike famously wrote about the greatest Red Sox of them all, Ted Williams, upon the latter's retirement 50 years ago. It's a good thing the Splendid Splinter wasn't around to see this collapse. And, speaking of God, the aforementioned Gonzalez said in the locker room after Wednesday's game that "God has a plan. And it wasn't God's plan for us to be in the playoffs." That happened. He actually said that. I guess it's better than saying, "God didn't want me to hit that curve ball." But it helps explain why so few members of the Red Sox Nation, spread out all over the world, can't stand this team of underachieving apologists.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.
As they do every year, the Red Sox owners spent a fortune collecting these particular players. They reportedly spent over $340 million, in fact. Before the season, the Sox were a consensus choice to make the playoffs—and compete for the World Series. It all looked so good on paper. But they don't play games on paper. And Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician who is on the Sox payroll, evidently hasn't come up with a Sabermetic that computes heart and soul and accountability. What we now know of the team, what Sox fans have known for at least the past month, is that it was devoide of all the intangibles that make a group of athletes into a team; that generate a cohesive product that is more than the sum of its parts.
Theo Epstein, the GM who has received so many accolades this year, deserves most of the blame for that. He's the one who brought Crawford aboard and who terribly overrated the Sox starting pitching staff. If Epstein really wants to go to the Cubs he has my blessing. Vaya con Dios. The manager, Terry Francona, also failed to perform his job well enough. So, too, did all the lesser coaches, from Curt Young, whose pitchers fell apart, to the strength and conditioning coaches, who allowed too many of the players to look like Weebles during the September swoon. There is nothing mysterious about any of this. It was a complete system failure.
I will leave the final word to the Oracle himself, David Ortiz, beloved Big Papi, whose life-sized cardboard cutout we keep in our living room during the baseball season. Ortiz said after Wednesday's game: "We're not a playoff team. The Rays deserved it and we didn't. You can't say we were a good team.'' No, Big Papi, you can't.