The old-time gloom settles over Fenway
It was shocking. It was time travel. It was back to the bad old days.
It was a macabre matinee at our ancient baseball theater.
All you young New Englanders who shrugged whenever dad said, “The Sox will blow it, they always choke at the end,’’ . . . now you know.
The Los Angeles Angels are moving on to the American League Championship Series in the wake of yesterday’s stunning 7-6 comeback win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park. There’ll be no more “Dirty Water,’’ no more “Shipping Up to Boston,’’ no more “Sweet Caroline.’’ Time to hang the storm windows, stack some cordwood, and turn to the Patriots.
Boston’s baseball summer ended in abrupt, throwup/throwback fashion when star closer Jonathan Papelbon failed to hold a two-run lead in the top of the ninth with two outs, nobody on base, and an 0 and 2 count on the No. 9 batter. The oft-maligned Angels, who had lost nine of 10 playoff games against Boston in this century before the series began, rallied for three runs and danced on the Fenway grass after another silent ninth by the Red Sox.
There was nothing fluky about this outcome, folks. It was a three-game sweep, a Boston beatdown in which all of the locals’ flaws were exposed. Just as we feared, the 2009 Red Sox were artificially enhanced by home-field dominance (56-25 at Fenway) and a lot of games against the Triple A Orioles. Ultimately, the Franconamen were a team with too many holes to win a World Series.
“I don’t think anything that happened in this series was completely out of the blue,’’ said general manager Theo Epstein. “We saw things that were reflected early in the season.’’
“You have to tip your hat to the Angels,’’ added club chairman Tom Werner. “They played better than we did.’’
All graciousness aside, there was a lot of weird science and superstition attached to the finale. Start with Dave Henderson, who threw out the first pitch. Twenty-three years ago, Henderson was the Sox’ October hero. He hit the go-ahead ninth-inning homer off Angels closer Donnie Moore in the crucial fifth game of the ALCS, which ended with the Sox winning, 7-6 (familiar, no?). It was the first of the infamous “One Strike Away’’ games in the antumn of ’86 and it sent the Angels into a worm hole from which they did not emerge until 2002.
Just as the Angels were one strike away multiple times in ’86, the Sox were within one pitch of victory several times yesterday. It’s still hard to believe the Red Sox lost.
Boston led, 5-1 in the sixth, 5-2 in the eighth, and 6-4 in the ninth with two outs, nobody aboard, and an 0-2 count on Erick Aybar.
In that moment, Papelbon was working on a string of 27 consecutive scoreless postseason innings. His career playoff ERA was John Blutarsky’s grade-point average: 0.00. The only pitcher in big league history to come out of the gate with more scoreless frames in October was a guy named Christy Mathewson, who did it from 1905-11.
But despite good numbers in 2009, we know Papelbon has not been his dominant self of yore. There was a bad moon rising over the right-field bullpen for a good part of the summer and it was only a matter of time before the indomitable closer would take a plunge off the highwire.
It happened. Cinco Ocho threw a fat 0-2 pitch to Aybar, which the shortstop cracked into center field. Then he fell behind, 3-0, on Chone Figgins, the flyweight leadoff hitter.
Figgins was 0 for 12 with six strikeouts in the series.
Papelbon worked the count to 3-2. Figgins fouled off a pitch. Then Papelbon missed. Ball four.
Bobby Abreu was next and he simply did what he did the entire series: He killed the Red Sox. Abreu fouled off a 1-2 pitch (one strike away, again!), then crushed a double off the Wall to cut the margin to 6-5. Figgins held at third.
Manager Terry Francona ordered an intentional walk to Torii Hunter, loading the bases.
Enter Vladimir Guerrero. The aging superstar reminds us a little of Artis Gilmore in his final days. Vlad was once a great player, but he’s broken down. It had to be insulting to have the Sox walk Hunter to get to the Angels’ cleanup man.
Vladi answered with a vicious single to center on Papelbon’s first pitch.
Francona came out to get his closer.
Not your day, kid.
Not the Sox’ year, either.
In the bottom of the ninth, a door in the center-field wall swung open even though there was nobody on the other side of the door. Hunter went over to close the door while time was called. It was as if an occult hand had pushed it open from inside the wall.
By then, all the air was sucked out of the ballpark. Fenway fans, like the Red Sox, had nothing left. There were no chants of “Beat LA.’’ Not even a “Beat New York’’ sendoff for the noble Angels. The Sox went down, 1-2-3. They hit .158 in three games.
“Sports are sports,’’ said Kevin Youkilis (1 for 12, .083). “Things are gonna happen. It was surprising that it happened so quick. You’re ready to win and play another game and the next thing you know your season is over.’’
Jon Lester, who would have started tonight on three days’ rest, will be working on almost six months’ rest when he makes his next official start. You may have seen Jason Bay in a Sox uniform for the last time. Ditto for ’04 Boys Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek.
Your wild-card champs are history, gone in the crisp October afternoon before the Patriots kicked off their fifth game of the season.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.