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Sox fans staggering to the finish

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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During the Red Sox’s soul-crushing September swoon, fans have watched in horror as a team that looked like baseball’s best collapsed like a dying star.

The meltdown, which despite last night’s win could still cost the team a once all-but-certain playoff berth, has left fans apoplectic.

Some, their spirits beaten down by the blur of defeats, say they feel like boxers who have taken too many punches. No mas, they say. They have nothing left to give. Others have maintained a flicker of faith to carry them into tonight’s finale. All agree this month has been a nightmare, a slow-drip poison that has turned a promising season into pure pain.

“Just miserable,’’ said Bryan Dodge, 34, from Beverly. “How else is there to feel?’’

With the team playing so badly of late, fans said every game feels doomed from the start. Worse, the team seems to be going down with barely a whimper.

“It’s tough to get behind them right now,’’ said Jim Maloney, 31, of Boston as he read the coverage of Monday night’s loss to the hapless Orioles. “It’s tough to watch.’’

Like many fans, Maloney can barely bring himself to tune in these days. The outcome hardly seems in doubt, and the manner of defeat will surely be painful. True to form, the Sox gave up three runs Monday when a missed catch turned into an inside-the-park home run.

“It’s really unbelievable,’’ said Matt Dargan, 32, a Sox fan from Somerville who has followed the team’s downward spiral with a mix of anguish and fatalism. “I don’t have much optimism left.’’

For most of the season, fans reveled in Red Sox dominance. The powerful lineup that scored runs in bunches. The one-two punch of pitchers Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. The all-around brilliance of Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.

The team was a lock for the playoffs, and with a little luck could bring a sports-crazed city yet another championship.

Now, those days seem like a cruel hoax, a long con designed to gain fans’ trust, then betray it.

Fans are left wondering where it all went wrong.

“The whole thing is so sad,’’ said Diana Iltis, a longtime Red Sox fan visiting from San Diego. “They were doing so well. We were really hoping this was their year.’’

A Maine native, Iltis practically grew up at Fenway and remembers all too well the season of 1978, when the Red Sox lost a huge lead to the New York Yankees. She had hoped those days were behind her.

“They were up so far,’’ she said, as if asking a question. “It’s a head-scratcher.’’

Fans offered a range of reasons for the collapse, from the awful performances of high-paid players like Carl Crawford and John Lackey, to a pitching staff depleted by injuries, to an overrated farm system that did not have enough quality players ready to fill in. Throughout the month, many said, they have anguished as pitchers too young or too old gave up run after run.

Still, the magnitude of the collapse seems to defy rational explanation, and many fans said fate seems to have conspired against the team this month, like it used to in the old days.

Others suspected the team let off the gas pedal too early, sure their lead was safe.

“I think they might have gotten too full of themselves, you know?’’ said Evan Moore, 19, a student at Suffolk University. “Maybe a little too comfortable with how far ahead they were.’’

As painful as the meltdown has been, fans point to one silver lining. Before the two championships that erased decades of agonizing futility, it would have been infinitely worse.

Even with those championships, some fans said this collapse was shameful and hard to forgive.

“It’s tough to swallow,’’ Dodge said. “This year, no one was supposed to be able to touch us.’’

Dodge was particularly vexed that the Sox had put him and other Sox fans in the objectionable position of rooting for the dreaded Yankees, who are playing Tampa Bay.

Fans like Brandon Watson, 19, from Roxbury, came of age during a golden age of Boston sports, with all four teams winning championships.

“I’ve been to every parade,’’ he said. “It’s the best part of being in Boston.’’

Watson was disappointed the Red Sox were not doing well, calling their recent play “terrible.’’ But he did not seem too crushed over it. After so much winning, it was hard to get too upset.

“It’s just life,’’ he said philosophically.

Life or death, others said. Riding the Red line yesterday, a college student in Red Sox garb said she was in a terrible mood, and it was the Sox to blame. Loss after loss after loss, she fumed. A great season turned to dust. She did not want to even talk about it.

She wore a faded Kevin Youkilis T-shirt. He’s been hurt. So has she.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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