“This,” said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, “is a psychological situation.”
The Red Sox right now are a team engulfed in failure and unrelenting uncertainty. The air around the team is heavy with defeat, a weight borne not just of the club’s spectacular meltdown in a 15-9 loss to the Yankees on Saturday or its 4-10 record or its five-game losing streak but of something far more ominous.
The innovative paths to defeat (none more startling than Saturday’s bullpen yield of 14 runs, which turned a 9-1 advantage into a six-run loss) in the early season have yielded the worst environment imaginable for the Sox. Instead of allowing the 2012 team to assume its own identity, the miserable start has ensured that the memory of the team’s collapse in September 2011 hovers over this year’s club.
If there was a pretense that this was a different year, it was dropped on Saturday night. When Valentine discussed what his team was facing after a crushing loss, he defined a club for whom the wounds of last September feel as fresh as a player injury that took place just over a week ago.
“Does last September have a toll? Does losing [Jacoby] Ellsbury have a toll?” he wondered. “You’ve got to be tough. I think we’re a tough team. We’ll find out. I believe [the players] are.”
Some of the faces have changed since last year, most notably the manager and the general manager. There has been some roster turnover.
But that strange feeling of failure -- once foreign to the Red Sox -- is becoming both normalized and consuming in the clubhouse. And it has left the players in a state of extreme discomfort, to the point where key members could not bear to stay in the clubhouse to account for the fate that has befallen them.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the team’s unofficial captain, declined to talk about this latest painful chapter after the game.
“I got nothing for you guys,” he said to the reporters who surrounded him.
He wasn’t alone.
“Not talking today,” said DH David Ortiz.
Other players exited rapidly after dressing, making haste past the packs of reporters. And, really, what was there to say after a 15-9 loss that wasn’t obvious?
“It sucked. Sucked. That’s it. There’s no other way to talk about it. Game sucked. I mean, that shouldn’t happen. We should play better all around. There’s nothing really else to say,” said shortstop Mike Aviles. “It’s hard to be a part of. Just gotta turn the page and go back at ‘em tomorrow. I know it’s hard because I can tell you right now I’m probably not going to sleep all too well tonight. That’s just because I really don’t like losing, and I’m pretty sure everybody else in here doesn’t like it, either. We’ve just got to figure out how to turn this thing around, get back on the winning side.”
Easier said than done, evidently.
The Sox saw their 2011 season go up in smoke when they struggled through a 7-20 record and .259 winning percentage in the final month. This year, they are hardly better, with their 4-10 mark yielding a .286 winning percentage.
The team’s ERA last September: 5.84, including a 7.08 ERA by the rotation. The team’s ERA this month: 6.68, worst in the majors by more than a run and a half per nine innings, with the starters in possession of a 5.75 ERA that is 28th in the majors and the relievers now possessing a ghastly 8.44 ERA that is dead last. Saturday’s loss was almost indescribable for both its improbability and the speed with which it occurred.
“I think we’ve hit bottom. That’s what I told [the players] after the game,” said Valentine. “You have to sometimes hit bottom and if this isn’t bottom, we’ll find some new ends to the earth I guess, or something.”
Certainly, it feels as if the club has hit bottom. Yet the question is what it will take for it to return from that low point, or whether it can return from it. Some teams who arrived at these sorts of depths never did re-surface.
Early in the offseason following the 2011 season, one talent evaluator who witnessed the Mets’ late-season collapse of 2007 took stock of the similarities between that club -- which had a superstar-laden core that saw a seven-game lead in the NL East evaporate in the last 17 games of the year -- and the 2011 Sox.
“There is a hangover,” the evaluator cautioned.
Yet that Mets team’s hangover in 2008 came in the form of a march through a stretch of roughly .500 baseball through the first half of the year. Mid-year, manager Willie Randolph was fired and replaced by Jerry Manuel, who steered the club into first place by mid-September.
Then, once again, the division was lost over the final two weeks of the season, the Mets falling three games short of the Phillies and one short of the Brewers in the wild card on the last day of the season. The franchise has never been competitive since then.
“The Mets went down the [toilet] after that. It rips your guts out. It’s really hard,” the evaluator said of the late-season swoon. “They weren’t able to recover.”
The Red Sox, the evaluator insisted, face a similar crossroads with the 2012 season. Thus far, the team has been unable to escape the feeling that it is experiencing a repeat of what happened at the end of last year.
So, can the team shake that sentiment? The best that players have been able to do is to cite another element from last year, namely the 2-12 start that was forgotten from May through the end of August, a four-month stretch during which the Sox were the class of the American League. That experience was used as a rebuttal to Valentine’s declaration of rock-bottom-dom.
“He wasn’t with us last year when we started off 0-6. We keep going back to that. We’ve been through it,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “We’ve just got to continue to fight. It’s going to get better. We’re too good. We’ve got too good of guys out there to continue with this.”
The team insists that it remains loaded with talent, and that the talent will translate into an improved winning percentage. But right now, that equation is failing. Accordingly, the team is at a loss.
“I haven’t been a part of anything the way this has been. We’ve just found ways to lose. It’s unfortunate, because the amount of talent that we have in this clubhouse is honestly incredible,” said Aviles. “I still feel like we’re going to win a World Series, regardless of what’s going on right now, because a couple months, we’ll all be laughing about this. We may not be right now, but in a couple months, when we turn this thing around, and everything is going back in the right direction, we’ll be all right.”
Undoubtedly, the Mets must have felt the same way in 2008 and 2009. But their team never did get back in the right direction.
Will the Sox? Time will tell. But time is an asset that the time is finding to be in increasingly short supply.
Hours after Saturday’s game -- and following a meeting of Valentine and GM Ben Cherington and principal owner John Henry and CEO/president Larry Lucchino in Valentine’s office -- Cherington took stock of the precarious situation facing his club.
Prior to the season, when closer Andrew Bailey went down, the GM felt that the right thing to do was to keep Daniel Bard in the rotation given the potential long-term benefits of doing so. Now, roughly three weeks later, the decision-making environment has changed, with the value of the long-term getting shaved by immediate team need.
Not only is Bailey gone, but Mark Melancon -- who was supposed to set up for Bailey -- is in Pawtucket after straining under the weight of a 49.50 ERA. Replacement closer Alfredo Aceves, after failing to retire any of the six batters he faced on Saturday, has a 24.00 ERA. Vicente Padilla, Franklin Morales, Matt Albers and Justin Thomas have all hit potholes.
And so, the analysis of whether the short-term boost of Bard in the bullpen outweighs the long-term benefit of keeping him in the rotation is different than it was before the season. Bard will remain the scheduled starter for Sunday’s game; beyond that, the team will consider all of its options.
“We're 4-10 and our pitching performance hasn't been good,” said Cherington. “You can't just hope something's going to get better. You have to look at it objectively and try to find ways to improve it. So, sure, when things aren't going well you got to look at it closer and there's more urgency to make it improve. But again, there's more than one way to do that, and we’ve got to look at all the ways.”
But the team also has to go beyond that. Cherington spoke resolutely about the idea that he still believes in the abilities of his staff, but he also acknowledged an important reality.
“[I] still believe despite what happened today that there's a lot of quality on the pitching staff, guys that can be successful and will be successful,” he said. “We’ve got to get there, though, there's no use talking about it. We’ve got to do it.”
Until that happens, then this strange exercise will continue, in which the six-month separation of September 2011 and April 2012 will keep collapsing like an accordion. With each defeat, the Red Sox are borne back ceaselessly into a recent past from which they were hoping to break, thrust back into a familiar plot that was painful enough for the players to experience the first time.