BALTIMORE —The Red Sox have experienced some nights of great anguish over the years. But nothing quite like tonight.
They had a one-run lead with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning. Jonathan Papelbon was one pitch away from ending the game. At worst, the Sox would be guaranteed a one-game playoff with the Rays.
Then Chris Davis doubled. Nolan Reimold followed with a ground-rule double to the gap in right, driving in a run. Papelbon, at that point, had thrown 10 fastballs in a row. The closer who had been so steady all season tried to let brute force take over.
“I was overthrowing,” he would admit later, shaking his head. “I was pumped up to be in that situation.”
Sox-killer Roberto Andino was next and he hit a splitter to left field. Carl Crawford, one of the symbols of the franchise’s failed plan to overwhelm baseball with a high-salaried collection of stars, had a chance to catch the ball and missed it.
His throw to the plate was too late and the Orioles had a walk-off 4-3 win. Buck Showalter, who mocked the Red Sox in spring training, beat them in five of the last seven meetings between the teams.
As the Red Sox entered the clubhouse, Evan Longoria homered and the Rays had beat the Yankees in 12 innings, rallying back from a 7-0 deficit. The season was over as the Rays claimed the wild card.
“This is was one for the ages, isn’t it?” a solemn Theo Epstein said. “With the way we played in September, we can’t sugarcoat this. This is awful. We did it to ourselves. We put ourselves in a position for a crazy night like this to end our season. It shouldn’t have been this way.
“A 7-20 September? If we go 9-18 we’re where we want to be. 9-18 is what, winning a third of your games? The worst teams in baseball won a third of their games. There’s no excuse for this.”
There will almost certainly be changes. How can there not be? The $161 million Sox lost 16 of their last 21 games and injuries don’t explain all of that. They won one more game than last season.
No team has ever lost a nine-game lead for a playoff spot in September. Only seven seasons after the greatest playoff comeback ever, the Sox are now the greatest regular-season chokers.
This team played poor fundamental baseball over the final weeks. The organization was exposed for its lack of pitching depth. Aging players broke down and others unperformed.
“Obviously we didn’t play good baseball and the pitching led the way as far as not playing well,” Epstein said. “There were a lot of factors.”
The Sox can’t chalk it up to bad luck and gather up the same old gang in Fort Myers next February. This franchise has not won a playoff game since Oct. 16, 2008. That’s a long time given their resources.
“I think after every year you have to look at where you are as an organization. Not just the current season that just ended. The trends and where you’re going in the future. It’s our responsibility to do that every year and learn something. When we have a month like we just had, it’ll only intensify that effort that’s for sure.
“We can’t deny that this month happened just because it was preceded by four months of being in the best team in baseball doesn’t mean September didn’t happen. We’ll have to take a very close look at everything that’s not right. That includes the whole organization. If there’s any silver lining from it, it’s you can’t look at the other way. If there’s anything that’s not exactly the way you want it, you have to address it now. That process is going to be difficult but it’s something that we have to do.”
Terry Francona looked stunned.
“We needed to take care of business today and we didn’t,” he said. “I don’t know how to evaluate it. Every time you lose it hurts. When you go home before you’re ready, it hurts. As tough as it has been this month, we weren’t ready to go home.”