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Are Sox on the slide?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 12, 2009 09:17 AM

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In the Red Sox clubhouse, after the most devastating home loss since October 1978, there were questions. Questions for Jonathan Papelbon. Questions for Jason Bay. Questions for a Red Sox organization that now seems to be heading backward.

And so, in the aftermath of a 7-6 Sox defeat to the Los Angeles Angels that ended the 2009 baseball season in Boston, we wonder: are the Sox closer to being like their championship clubs of 2004 and 2007, or are they closer to being like the Oakland A’s of this early millennium - a team that seemingly could win in every month but October? Was this merely a momentary setback or a sign of a more long-lasting deterioration? And regardless of the answers to those questions, can the Sox quickly repair what ails them, particularly with regard to an offense that has been exposed in each of the last two autumns?

"I don’t think anything that happened in this series completely came out of the blue,’’ a candid Sox general manager Theo Epstein said after his team was unceremoniously swept out of the first round. Added the Sox GM, "We got outplayed in this series. They deserved it. They outplayed us fair and square and they deserve to move on.’’

Indeed they do. As for the Red Sox, the teams of the last two Octobers have differed greatly from those of 2003-2007, when the Sox won a pair of world titles. When it comes right down to it, the Sox simply do not tax opposing pitching staffs the way they used to, at least at that time of year when the competition intensifies and the games grow in magnitude.

From 2003 to 2007, when the Red Sox made four playoff appearances in five years, they batted a collective .279 in the postseason with a team OPS of .822 and averaged 5.7 runs per game. During that time, whether making one postseason appearance or five, no other team in baseball produced more runs per game or hit for a higher average. When it came time to face the Red Sox in the postseason, opponents were downright afraid of pitching to the Red Sox.

Over the last two seasons, that has changed entirely. In this series, especially, the Angels attacked most everyone in the Boston lineup. In 2008-09, the Red Sox have batted a woeful .224 with a .681 OPS and averaged 3.8 runs per contest. During that span, they have gone 6-8 and lost two of the three series in which they have played. The only series win during that stretch was last year’s American League Division Series against the Angels, a four-game set during which the scores entering the ninth inning were 2-1 (Sox), 5-5, 4-4 and 2-2.

Given all of those realities, the easy thing now is to attribute all of this to the departure of Manny Ramirez or the failure to sign Mark Teixeira – or both. The truth is far more complicated. Obviously, David Ortiz (1 for 12, no walks in this year’s ALDS) is not the same hitter anymore. Mike Lowell (2 for 10) will be 36 in February. And for as much as Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Jason Bay have given the Red Sox lineup in the last 15 months, the Red Sox are not nearly as deep or as thick as they used to be.

In the last two seasons, the Red Sox have finished a respective second (in 2008) and third (in 2009) in runs scored, yet been completely shut down in October. All of that suggests, at least offensively, that the Sox are paper tigers who pad their resumes by beating up on bad pitching and then get sand kicked in their face when the playoff start.

Admittedly, thanks to the run the Sox enjoyed from 2003-07, our expectations here are absurdly high. When the Sox had Ortiz and Ramirez in the middle of their lineup, even in a tainted era, their offense was built around a truly historic tandem. As such, maybe we have unreasonable standards. But when the Sox started playing musical chairs with their lineups late in the year – five players for four spots, including Jason Varitek at the time – it was probably an indication that they didn’t have enough cornerstone players anymore.

As a result, manager Terry Francona had perhaps his most trying year in Boston, left with the unenviable challenge of trying to satisfy an assortment of aging veterans who probably aren’t everyday players anymore. That can create an absurd amount of tension and stress. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were adding players to their bullpen and their lineup – all necessary moves, mind you – because the Sox came to the same midseason conclusion we all did: specifically, that they were not good enough.

So where do they go from here? Excellent question. At the moment, the 2010 season looks to be more like 2006 (when the Sox missed the playoffs) than 2007 (when they won their most recent world title). After all, the last time the Sox were swept from the postseason, they missed the playoffs the very next year. Even if Epstein is able to re-sign Bay – and that is a big if at the moment – the Sox appear to need another centerpiece bat, which could be tough to acquire given the shortage of talent available on the free agent market and absence of a stud bat in the Boston organization. (Where have you gone, Lars Anderson?)

"I’ve said all along that if something makes sense, I’d be stupid not to look at it,’’ Bay said yesterday when asked if the Sox had any chance of re-signing him before he officially files for free agency in November. "But since we got this far, it would have to pretty good [for him to sign] – put it that way.’’

Translation: Bay is headed to free agency because, at this point, he owes it to himself to take offers. And once that happens, all bets are off.

Said Bay, "I need to make something clear: everyone says it, but it’s not all about the money. It’s about the situation and about being comfortable. Obviously, at some point, it becomes about the money, but there are other factors.’’

For what it’s worth, Bay regards his experience in Boston as "a huge, huge positive,’’ but we all know that free agency is a tricky business. As quickly as Bay got comfortable here, he could get comfortable somewhere else. If and when that happens, the Red Sox will need to have a Plan B in place. The Sox generally have taken a conservative approach with regard to signing their free agents in recent years, but this one could come back to haunt them if a suitable replacement is not found.

All of this brings us back to the A’s of 2000 to 2006, who made the postseason five times and won one playoff series, prompting the increasingly popular belief that success in the postseason is, well, arbitrary. To his credit, Epstein yesterday cited that explanation as "a crutch,’’ which is the right answer for a big-market team like the Sox that can outspend most anyone else in the game. Like those A’s, who built their success around Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, the Sox have Josh Beckett and Jon Lester under contract through at least next season. But the lineup now looks rather ordinary – at least against good teams – which cannot help but make you wonder if the Red Sox are starting to turn into the Bruins of the 1980s.

Good enough to make the playoffs, flawed enough to fall short of a championship.

Again, it is important to remember here that we have all grown spoiled. This year, there were 22 major league teams who failed to make the playoffs; the Red Sox now have played in October during six of the last seven years. The downside of great success is that anything less seems like a disappointment, particularly when failure comes in the way it did for the Sox yesterday. When they blew leads of 5-2 (in the eighth) and 6-4 (in the ninth). Still, before anyone focuses too much on a previously impenetrable closer who was introduced to his mortality this year – is Jonathan Papelbon something else to worry about? – let’s remember that the Sox played three games in this series and lost them all.

Their problems, it seems, run far, far deeper than just yesterday’s top of the ninth.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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