BALTIMORE -- Those few remaining members of the Red Sox who have been with the organization since 2003 have experienced the greatest pinnacles the franchise has ever known, and lessons that instilled hope in seemingly the bleakest of circumstances. But that group has also experienced some of the most agonizing moments in the complicated history of one of baseball’s signature franchises.
The devastating memory of the end of the 2003 season, in which the Sox spit up a 5-2 lead that they held in the bottom of the eighth inning of ALCS Game 7 in Yankee Stadium, had seemed the defining nadir that the team had ever endured. That night, eight Octobers ago, features wounds that are still painful for players such as David Ortiz and Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield to conjure, albeit ones that were allowed to heal completely by the Sox’ subsequent two World Series titles.
But as Wednesday rolled into Thursday, the Red Sox endured the final touches on what immediately became the new signature demonstration of odds-defying futility.
The final innings of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS were a horror show in franchise annals, yet they unfolded -- or, more precisely, unraveled -- quickly. A brutal succession of events occurred in a matter of hours and even minutes.
The story of the epic collapse of 2011 by the Red Sox represented a far more painful thing to watch, a house of cards that imploded in slow motion over a period of days, weeks and even the entirety of a month.
It was a monstrous development that the Sox tried unsuccessfully to counter for weeks. The drawn-out transformation from a team that had earned the title of the class of the American League to one that was on the outside of the postseason tournament proved excruciating. To some, 2011 ultimately represented a more painful experience even than the gut-wrenching conclusion of the 2003 campaign.
“Not even close. Not even close to what happened to us in ’03,” said Sox DH David Ortiz. “We walked into September nine games ahead, and look where we’re at right now. It can’t go no worse than that. This is worse. I never put any attention to where we’re at. … But at one point, I was like, ‘Wait a minute – we walked into September nine games ahead.’
“Wow. It doesn’t matter what anybody here does. That’s going to stay in your head. That’s not a situation you want to be facing, but you learn from that. … Nothing I can say [to the fans], right now. Not too much to say. Everybody knows it all. … At the moment, I can’t really talk too much. … It’s horrible, man. Horrible.”
Never before 2011 had a team that entered September armed with a nine-game lead found its season demolished without playing a single postseason game. But now, the 2011 Red Sox, who possessed that nine-game cushion over Tampa Bay at the start of play on Sept. 1, occupy the distinction for themselves after blowing a 3-2, ninth-inning lead in a 4-3, walkoff loss to the Orioles that coincided almost to the minute with Tampa Bay’s 8-7, 12-inning, walkoff victory over the Yankees in St. Petersburg.
The turn of events -- the culmination of a shockingly bad month of baseball, in which the Sox went just 7-20, good for a .259 winning percentage that was the worst ever in September by a team that arrived at the month in first place -- gutted the club.
The Sox had seen all aspects of their team fail. The starting pitching was atrocious. The relievers failed to take advantage of their few opportunities. The fielding was pitiful. The baserunning was negligent. The offense was inconsistent.
The month-long failure that produced such a pitiful record – the performance would have projected over the course of a full year to a 42-120 mark – was comprehensive. And so, it reverberated through the sullen Red Sox clubhouse.
“I don’t know how you can put this in the middle of anything [in terms of ranking the relative misery of the collapse],” said Jason Varitek, a part of both vanquished clubs. “There isn’t probably a person in this locker room who doesn’t feel like absolute crap. … This is pretty numbing. I don’t know really how to explain it more than just numb.”
That sense became even more acute as a result of the extreme swings taking place in two baseball stadiums approximately 1,000 miles apart. Over the course of the night, the Red Sox saw their postseason hopes take a head-spinning 180-degree turn.
Over the course of a compressed few hours, the Red Sox saw their playoff odds go from a 50-50 scenario when they and the Rays began the day dead even in the standings to highly likely a couple of hours into the two teams’ respective games, when the Sox led, 3-2, and the Rays were getting blown out, 7-0.
But then came the rains that seemed intent on washing away the Sox’ season. Over an 86-minute delay, the Sox sat on their one-run lead in the clubhouse while watching in horror as the Rays came all the way back from their deficit. They saw Tampa Bay’s six runs in the eighth inning and then, just before the resumption of play in Baltimore, they were aware of Dan Johnson’s unlikely ninth-inning, two-out, two strike rip off the foul pole to tie the game in Tampa Bay.
As play resumed, the Sox frittered away opportunities to separate themselves from the Orioles, as in two innings, so many of the flaws that manifest themselves throughout the month of September revealed themselves again to horrifying effect. First in the eighth inning, Marco Scutaro committed a memorable baserunning gaffe when he lost track of a Carl Crawford double, attempted to turn back towards second base and finally attempted to right the course and score. He was thrown out easily.
Then, after putting runners on the corners with no outs in the ninth, David Ortiz popped out against O’s closer Jim Johnson, and after an intentional walk of Adrian Gonzalez, Tuesday hero Ryan Lavarnway suffered the final measure of his poor Wednesday at the plate, grounding into a double play that capped an 0-for-5 night in which he left nine runners on base.
That left the game at 3-2, and in turn set the stage for the Orioles’ rally against Jonathan Papelbon. As Boston’s closer was in the process of blowing the game – the first time all year the Sox lost a game they entered the ninth leading, after entering the night 77-0 in such contests – the Yankees were in the process of wasting a first-and-third, no-out situation.
And then, the final indignities: Robert Andino’s game-winning single off the tip of Carl Crawford’s glove in left, and Evan Longoria’s game-winning homer to left in Southwest Florida.
With those two entwined events, the Sox suffered the brutal end to their season. Yet while the very end came suddenly it was a process that was a torturous month in the making, something that left not merely a pit but a boulder in the stomach of a team that had just seen its year come to its terminus.
“This is one for the ages, isn’t it? What was going on with those two games, how poorly we played in September. We can’t sugarcoat this, this is awful,” said Sox GM Epstein. “We did it to ourselves, and put ourselves in a position for a crazy night like this to end our season. It shouldn’t have been this way. … 7-20 in September, 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 win a third of their games. There’s no excuse, we did this to ourselves.”
“When you have the kind of month that we have, as it develops, you worry that you’re not going to accomplish your goals. We sure didn’t,” he added. “We don’t have any excuses, things went wrong from an injury standpoint, luck or fate or whatever you have it, but the overriding factor was just poor play. We did it to ourselves, we have no excuses. We’ll have time to dissect it going forward, right now it’s just nasty disappointment, obviously.”