Way back in spring training there was a feeling that this Red Sox team could be one for the ages. Now, it is -- for all the wrong reasons.
The February rallying cry of 100 wins was replaced by the September requiem of 20 losses (in 27 games), as the Sox stumbled and bumbled their way out of both Baltimore and the playoffs, failing to win consecutive games in the final month.
While the infamous 1978 crew once held a 14-game lead on the fourth-place Yankees in July, the largest advantage it enjoyed over a second-place holder that season was 10 games on July 8. At the start of September, the Sox of '78 led the Pinstripes by 6.5 games. They won eight straight to force a playoff.
No team in baseball history had ever entered September with a nine-game hold on a playoff spot and failed to make the postseason. Until last night. It was only fitting that a wild night dictated which team won the wild card. The Tampa Bay Rays are a team of destiny. The Sox are a team of ignominy, crashing to earth like a ton of commemorative bricks.
Last night's remote-control ping-pong series of events was a microcosm of the closing month of the American League wild card chase. The Rays and their $41 million payroll refusing to say die, down seven runs with six outs remaining and down to their final strike before Dan Johnson's pinch-hit, game-tying homer in the ninth. The Red Sox shoveling dirt on their own grave, one strike away from prolonging their season with a win over the Baltimore Orioles.
The harsh reality is that the Sox didn't restore order in the AL East. They repeated it. After spending approximately $300 million last offseason to boost their lineup and their ratings, the Sox are right back where they started last autumn before they were the dollar-spending darlings of the Hot Stove circuit. They are a third-place team that has its nose pressed against the playoff glass.
Boston baseball fans are back to a familiar past time -- the blame game. Sox fans are enraged and re-engaged in the team. Pink hats have given way to red faces. The afterglow of two World Series (2004 and 2007) has officially worn off now that the team will sit out the postseason for two consecutive seasons for the first time in the Theo Epstein era. Someone is going to have to take the fall for this freefall.
There is plenty of responsibility to go around. The pitching staff is to blame for its reckless abandonment in the final month (5.84 earned run average). The starters posted an ERA that looks like it came from a Romanian figure skating judge -- 7.08.
Manager Terry Francona is at fault for cultivating a clubhouse culture of complacency and not reining in the eye-rolling, arm-raising, foot-stomping histrionics of pitcher John Lackey. Epstein bears some of the burden of blame for not procuring effective reinforcements for his $161 million roster, leaving the Sox to run Alfredo Aceves into the ground and forcing them to start rookie Kyle Weiland three times this month. Someone in baseball ops still has to explain to me the never-ending infatuation with Andrew Miller.
The medical staff gets a slice of blame pie for failing to diagnose the stress fracture in Clay Buchholz's back until Aug. 1, a month and a half after he last pitched against the Rays, leaving him unavailable down the stretch.
But once culpability is doled is out, the reality remains that there are no easy fixes or decisions. There is no magic sabermetric wand the team can waive to make all right on Yawkey Way.
How different is this team really going to be next season? There is not much in the upper levels of the farm system, which was apparent this season, and they're an aging team handcuffed by the lucrative, long-term deals they've handed out the last two offseasons. They can bid Francona adieu, but that's like changing your socks when you think you have a hole in your shoes.
Lackey has to go, but after his lack of effectiveness and decorum this season, why would another team want to take him and any portion of the $45.75 million he's owed over the next three years?
Whether you like it or not, Carl Crawford, who didn't evoke Yaz with the way he played left field this year, is coming back. He is due to make $19.5 million next year. With six years remaining on his contract, no one is going to take on the toxic asset of Crawford, and if they do it's going to be at a liquidation-sale price. Boston is better off not writing off Crawford as a loss and hoping he reverts to the terrorizing player he was in Tampa Bay.
Kevin Youkilis is a sneaky 32 years old. Like Alex Rodriguez, his body can't take the abuse of playing third base everyday, but there is nowhere else to put Youk, if you bring back David Ortiz, ownership's favorite son. Before anyone declares third base prospect Will Middlebrooks the next Evan Longoria, he hit .161 in 16 games after being promoted to Pawtucket. Plus, Youkilis and Pedroia are the only righthanded power bats in your lineup.
Catching reclamation project Jarrod Saltalamacchia showed promise, but wore down while catching in a career-high 101 games. From Aug. 1 on, Saltalamacchia had the lowest on-base percentage in the majors of any player with 130 at-bats or more, posting a .220 OBP, while batting .191. During that time he had 52 strikeouts and four walks. That's why Ryan Larvarnway got the start last night.
Just like the Sox were not as good as they appeared to be on Aug. 31, when they were in first place and 31 games above .500. They're probably not as bad as they look now, post-cataclysm. That's really the best hope the Sox have for next season because winning the offseason championship again is meaningless.
"I think it's nice that those guys feel good about themselves and their teammates and what we have here," Epstein said back in Fort Myers in February. "But let's be honest we haven't done anything yet. ...We got a lot to prove. We got to prove we're not a third-place team in this division."
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.