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Bob Ryan

There’s nothing that hurts worse

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2011

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Few things exasperate me more in sports than the routine acceptance of the axiom, “Injuries are part of the game.’’ In other words, when they occur, you’re not supposed to complain. The code dictates that you keep the stiff upper lip.

Yeah, they’re part of the game, all right: the worst part.

Injuries are often the single biggest determinant in winning championships. Sure, it’s every general manager’s goal, in every sport, to construct an air-tight roster that provides ready replacement parts whenever a starter goes down. But it just doesn’t work out that way very often. Some players are waaay better than others. Some players are irreplaceable.

Look at the Phillies right now. They’ve got that celebrated pitching rotation, but what is the only Phillies-related topic anyone in Philly and Clearwater, Fla., is talking about right now? “Omigod. How are we going to replace Chase Utley?’’

The answer is, they can’t. They can put another body out there at second base — they’ve even signed Mets discard Luis Castillo. But Chase Utley is not so easy to replace.

May we talk for a moment about the 2010 Red Sox, winners of 89 games in the treacherous American League East? Are we supposed to pretend that had some very unfortunate injuries not occurred they wouldn’t have won six or eight more games, and thus injected themselves into the playoff picture? Were they the only team losing key people? No, but someone else can tell their stories.

Dustin Pedroia’s not a bad player. I believe you’ll find an MVP plaque on his mantle. He is in his total prime. And on the evening of June 25, 2010, he was in the midst of an ungodly tear, having lashed out 26 hits in his previous 52 at-bats, capped by a 5-for-5 day that included three home runs. Then he fouled a ball off his left foot and played just two more games, in August. OK, he wasn’t going to hit .500 and slug a kazillion the rest of the season, but he was playing well. No sub was going to come close to his production, and we haven’t even begun to talk defense.

Kevin Youkilis isn’t a bad player, either. That MVP plaque belonging to Pedroia could just as easily be his. He has established himself as a Certified Masher. On Aug. 2, he sustained a thumb injury and didn’t play again. Gee, do you think the Red Sox missed him, just a teeny-weeny bit?

Victor Martinez isn’t a bad player. I think we all know this. Oh, I don’t know, I’m just fishing here, but I’m kind of wondering that if perhaps he hadn’t missed most of July with a broken thumb, that the Red Sox might have won another game or two?

C’mon, let’s get serious. We can talk about the disappointments that were Josh Beckett and John Lackey, and we can talk about the shaky bullpen, but the biggest reasons the Red Sox did not play postseason baseball in 2010 were the injuries to Messrs. Pedroia, Youkilis, and Martinez.

This is all so self-evident. Whether we are analyzing team performance over the course of a season or individual career performance, injury is very often the single biggest factor.

Let’s talk shortstops. Alex Rodriguez got in his first big league box score in 1994 and was a full-timer by 1996. Derek Jeter had his ration of java in 1995 and came up to stay in 1996. Nomar Garciaparra had a September call-up in 1996 and hit the bigs full force in 1997.

For a period in the late ’90s and early whatevers, there was honest debate about which of these three gifted shortstops was the best. Sure, we know A-Rod’s boxcar career numbers now, and we are well aware that Jeter will soon have 3,000 hits, but may I remind you that the early Nomar was a destructive offensive machine whose early career accomplishments included leading the league in hits and triples as a rookie; back-to-back batting titles of .357 and .372; averaging 46 doubles a year in his first five full seasons; and, bet you didn’t know, leading the AL in intentional walks with 20 in 2000?

A-Rod will turn 36 on July 27. Jeter will turn 37 on June 26. Nomar will turn 38 on July 23. He last played in 2009, and in his last two seasons could only accumulate 350 at-bats. He stalled on his way to Cooperstown, and there is one, and only one reason — injuries. He was not fortunate enough to stay healthy, and that’s all it is: good fortune.

If you don’t believe that, I give you Cal Ripken Jr.

Pitchers!

Right, pitchers. Baseball history is a story of pitching promise gone unfulfilled because of injury. There are countless examples, but Mark Prior is as good as any. Prior was Stephen Strasburg before Stephen Strasburg, the can’t-miss kid with the golden right arm. We all know what has or hasn’t happened to Mark Prior, now in his umpteenth comeback, and, speaking of Strasburg, who knows if we’ll ever again see the flamethrower who captured our imaginations and brought people to the ballpark for a brief time last summer? The reason is injury.

Injury brings out the worst in some managers. If a player is hurt a little, or even a lot, he is supposed to suck it up for the good of the team. Managers figure that “injuries are part of the game.’’ They’re being ridiculous. They’re all afraid to be caught making “excuses.’’ But when you lose a Pedroia, Youkilis, and Martinez for extended periods, that’s not an excuse. It’s a reason, and a very good one.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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