Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2011

Sox Fans Will Remember A September To Forget

With “Moneyball” now showing at local theaters, it is worth noting that had a description of the events of the final day of sports’ longest regular season been shopped as a movie script before they actually happened on Wednesday, every Hollywood studio would have passed. “Too far-fetched,” the studio heads would have said in unison. But as the final innings were played out, reality outdid any imaginable fiction; and by Thursday morning, fans in Boston and Atlanta were left wishing it had all just been a scary movie.

During the long decades in which they believed themselves cursed by the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Red Sox fans endured more than their fair share of stunning reversals. There was Bucky Dent’s pop fly into the netting above the Green Monster in 1978, and Aaron Boone’s extra-inning blast into the night at the old Stadium in 2003. Between them, of course, was 1986 and Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolling between Bill Buckner’s legs. But as traumatic as those events were, for many residents of Red Sox Nation 2011 will surely be remembered as worse.

Worse because the club’s recent success had given fans good reason to believe that those bad old days were truly and finally over. World championships in 2004 and 2007 made believers of thousands of New Englanders, and the clear ability and intent of owner John Henry to invest in players and in improvements to Fenway Park made it seem like the future could only bring even more success. Worse because way back in March this club was seen by a host of pundits as being the class of the American League. Boston’s off-season acquisitions of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Carl Crawford promised an offensive juggernaut. The signing of free agent Crawford in particular caused considerable angst in the Bronx, where Yankees fans lamented New York’s off-season inactivity.

But worse most of all because those Curse-era failures were all sudden events. Yes the 1978 Sox spent the second half of the season frittering away a huge lead over the Yankees, but having done so they then won 12 of their final 15 games to climb back into a tie and force the one-game playoff at Fenway. Dent, Buckner, Boone, they were all like an unexpected punch in the gut. Shocking and painful, but at least over and done with. In contrast the steady unraveling of this year’s team through September was like an especially slow and cruel form of torture.

For three-quarters of the season, the Red Sox were all that they were hyped up to be. But after a Spring Training in which pitcher Josh Beckett talked about the team winning more than 100 games, Boston opened their campaign with a 2-10 record over the first two weeks. Then they closed with a stunning 7-20 mark over the month of September. Over the course of those six weeks bookending the season the team picked by many to represent the junior circuit in the World Series played at a pace to lose 125 games. Only the 1899 Cleveland Spiders lost more games in a single year.

As painful as Boston’s September fade was to watch, even for someone not a Red Sox fan; their 9 game Wild Card lead over Tampa Bay at the beginning of the month kept one thinking that somehow they would pull it out and move on to the post-season. Just past 9:30 Wednesday night, when their game against Baltimore was interrupted by rain, it still seemed like Boston would stagger into the playoffs. They clung to a 3-2 lead over the Orioles, while in Tampa the Rays trailed New York 7-0.

But by the time play resumed at Camden Yards, Tampa Bay had rallied to tie and force extra innings against the Yankees. Yet Boston still led in the bottom of the 9th, and closer Jonathan Papelbon had struck out the first two Orioles he had faced. Then, at the end of a month of slow agony, the ghosts of ’78, ’86 and ’03 were all revived. Once more, as with Dent, Buckner, and Boone, the denouement came with a horrible swiftness. Chris Davis doubled to right. Nolan Reimold plated the tieing run with a ground rule double to center. Robert Andino looked at a ball and a strike from Papelbon, then stroked a liner to left that bounced off the glove of a sliding Carl Crawford. With that the Red Sox were beaten 4-3. Just moments later, they were barely into their clubhouse in time to see Evan Longoria launch a walk-off home run in Tampa. With that the Red Sox were done.

In eight cities across the land, from Gotham out to Phoenix, teams and their fans prepare for the joyful experience that is the Great Game in October. By the end of the month one of the eight will be crowned champion. My rooting interest is no secret, and I’ll be in the stands at the Stadium cheering my pinstriped heroes on; even if a more objective observer would likely favor the Phillies and their starting pitching or the Tigers and certain Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.

But in Boston and through much of New England there is no joy. With a rancid beginning and a dismal finish, the Red Sox season has ended. The fact that in the National League Atlanta fell nearly as far nearly as fast is no comfort. Carl Crawford was a major disappointment, hitting nearly 40 points below his career average. John Lackey was a disaster on the mound and a cur in the clubhouse. Ultimately though, it was a total team failure. The starting rotation won but four games in September while posting an ERA over 7.00. Even Beckett and John Lester, a redoubtable duo for much of the year, couldn’t get it done in the end. In the spring they were going to make history. In the end they did, becoming the first team with a 9 game lead for a playoff spot on September 1st to fail to qualify for post-season play.

The airwaves are already filled with fans’ cries for the sacking of manager Terry Francona and their fervent wishes that GM Theo Epstein will take his sabremetrics to Chicago and the Cubs. One hopes that cooler heads will prevail; for Francona and Epstein, along with John Henry’s checkbook, have had a lot to do with Boston’s recent success. Boston will certainly contend, and win, again; but that is of little comfort at the moment. While the stadium lights are still shining brightly and they play on in other parts of the country, a winter of discontent has come unexpectedly early to New England.

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