BALTIMORE – One year later, it still boggles the mind, defies logic and makes utterly no sense.
Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the Red Sox’ shocking, season-ending 4-3 walkoff loss to the Orioles on the final day of the regular season, a defeat that was followed minutes later by a walkoff victory by the Rays. Those combined events -- which represented a reversal of outcomes from what seemed in line to occur just minutes earlier -- left the Red Sox with a 90-72 record, one game worse than the Rays.
Tampa Bay snuck into the playoffs with the American League wild card. The Sox went home, their once-promising season having imploded.
That loss in Baltimore was, of course, the culmination of a 7-20 September swoon, the final gesture in the Sox’ concession of what had been a nine-game advantage over the Rays at the start of the month. In retrospect, it still seems nearly impossible.
Consider: That Red Sox team, though banged up, still featured a lineup with Jacoby Ellsbury (amidst an MVP-caliber season), Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz on a nightly basis. It still scored 146 runs in September, third most in the majors.
It still featured a bullpen with three elite back-end options in Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. It still featured a rotation (for most of the month, at least), with two players who were All-Stars in 2011 in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, along with another pitcher (John Lackey) who had been signed precisely because he was supposed to be a source of stability and reliability.
Yet still: 7-20. A .259 winning percentage over a full month. For the sake of context: The current, stripped-down-to-spare-parts Red Sox roster, in which the lineup features a majority of players who opened the year in Pawtucket, is now 7-17 (.292) this September, after a 9-20 (.310) August.
Confronted with the memory of the meltdown on Friday, while returning to the scene of the final crime in Baltimore (where the Sox helplessly slinked through a 9-1 loss to the Orioles on Friday), members of the Red Sox who took part in that collapse acknowledged that they still hadn’t quite processed how that month unfolded.
“It's tough to believe that happened,” said Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was reduced to the role of bystander on the last two days of last year’s season due to an injury. “Every night it was something new.”
There were terrible starts from rotation members, bad calls from umpires, defensive misplays, baserunning blunders, managerial missteps, bullpen meltdowns, injuries, one-run losses . . .
It all spiraled into a cocktail of catastrophe that undermined a stretch that had seen the Red Sox on pace for 100 wins through the end of August.
And still, it seems almost impossible to explain how it all transpired -- both because of the shocking end, and particularly given that many of the principal agents of the month-long slide had little time to reflect on what had occurred before they were thrown into damage control amidst the portrayal of a clubhouse gone wild.
“There were those 15 minutes of, ‘Hey, we’re winning. Hey, the Rays are losing. Hey, we lost. Oh, (expletive), the Rays won, we’re going home.’ It all happened so quick I think it surprised guys, it caught guys off guard,” said Jon Lester, who was in line for the win in last year’s season finale, having allowed two runs in six innings while pitching on three days’ rest. “I think you could kind of tell that just by the answers you got in the clubhouse after the game. Everybody was kind of confused, dazed, like what the hell just happened?
“I just went home and it was such a long year for me physically. I had some bumps and bruises along the way. I got away, but then all the other stuff happened and came out. I had to deal with all that other B.S. I never really had the time to reflect on the season and try to figure things out. I think everything happened so fast. You got home and were like, ‘It’s the offseason already -- I wasn’t planning on this,’ trying to get that stuff figured out. Then all the other (stuff) came out.
“Now we’ve got to deal with this. I don’t think it ever really hit home for a lot of guys, what actually did happen. The main reason we were in that position was we just didn’t pitch very good. The days we pitched pretty good, we got outpitched. The days we pitched pretty bad, our offense tried to pick us up and it just wasn’t enough. We picked a bad time. Every team goes through struggles throughout the year. It was not a good time to struggle.”
Of course, as Lester pointed out, perception of the epic September struggle would have been muted had the Sox gone 2-4 rather than 0-6 to start the season, or 4-8 rather than 2-10, or if they had picked up the occasional extra win over different points of the season. Still, the final month of the season occupies an obvious spotlight, and so the poor performances of that month remain magnified.
“It just happened at the wrong time,” said Lester. “We didn’t have (Clay Buchholz) the whole second half. Besides (John Lackey), I’m the only one left (from last September’s rotation). I take full responsibility for it. It is what it is. I stunk, didn’t pitch very good and that was the reason why we lost.”
Of course, the fallout of the failure was perhaps more dramatic than the September collapse itself: Terry Francona wasn’t brought back. Theo Epstein was allowed to leave. The beer-and-chicken scandal erupted, something that ensured Josh Beckett would be a focal point for fan ire. Adrian Gonzalez went from an MVP frontrunner to a player who seemed puzzled and, to a degree, bitter about the scrutiny that he faced for his season-ending performance and his off-field comments. Carl Crawford, who could not make the catch on Robert Andino’s sinking liner to end the year, pinballed through a cycle of blame, as different members of the organization suggested that they had been against his signing.
Would the Sox have performed at a different level this year if the looming shadow of failure had not hovered over them? Even had Francona been dismissed, would someone other than Bobby Valentine -- identified as the right person for the job at the time of his hiring in no small part because of the unique circumstances surrounding the end of last year -- have been brought on board? Would Beckett and Gonzalez and Crawford have been traded this season?
More broadly, the ever-dwindling ranks of holdovers from last September are left to wonder: How different would things have been if the Sox had just managed to go 9-18, rather than 7-20?
“Obviously, I feel like if we could have gotten to that playoff spot -- a playoff game or whatever, we could have done something special and been a team to go all the way. We had that good of a team. One month didn’t define who we were,” said Saltalamacchia. “If we would have went to the playoffs, it would have been a different story for a lot of reasons. A lot of changes happened this offseason because of what happened in September. It sucks but it’s life. It’s part of baseball.
“When things don’t go right, somebody’s got to be to blame. Somebody’s got to be at fault. Just like this year. Things were going wrong, something had to change. Things were going wrong in September, so something had to change, and a lot of stuff came out.”
“I know that my view of last year would have been a lot different if we had made the playoffs, regardless of where we would have gone from there,” added Lester. “Would everything have come out as it did [if the Sox had gone 9-18 last September]? I don’t know. If we fall short of the World Series, does that stuff still come out?
“I don’t know. The people that, for some reason, felt like that was an issue and never addressed us about it, that’s something you’d have to ask them. It’s sad that us as players still have to sit here and wonder who those people were. You always kind of have that second-guessing. Was it one of my teammates? Was it front office? That’s tough. I don’t know. That’s questions for the sources to answer.”
The Red Sox haven’t stopped reeling since that month. It’s now been 13 months of ugly baseball, during which the team has gone 76-108. Still, as gut-wrenching and devastating as the experience of last year was, the players suggest that what they’ve gone through this year has been far more grueling.
This has been a year in which the poor record is more easily explained based on the deficiencies of a roster that was hit with a sledgehammer of injuries and then the blockbuster trade with the Dodgers. Whereas last year offered hope that the talent would create the framework for a turnaround, the same cannot be said as the Sox near the end of this year.
“This is something that a lot of us have never experienced. I don’t know how organizations can let their teams do this year in and year out,” said Lester. “It’s tough. It’s tough mentally. It’s tough physically. It’s tough to show up at the field every day with a positive attitude.
“I think last year, it was like somebody walking up to you and punching you in the face, and you go, ‘What happened?’ Then you move on. This year is kind of like, one week you’ve got somebody coming up and not really hitting you hard, but hitting you. The next week, they come up and do the same thing. It builds throughout the whole season where finally it’s like, ‘Uncle.’
“I don’t ever want to go through this again. Regardless of personal -- regardless of the way I’ve pitched – I don’t like this. I understand what we had to do to move towards the future. I understand. I’m not criticizing that by any means. But as far as the stuff before that, not playing good, not pitching well, struggling -- I think this is tougher, way tougher, than what we went through last year.”
Still, a similar sense looms at the end of September 2012 to the one that prevailed at the end of September 2011: What on earth happened? Even with the benefit of hindsight, there are few satisfactory answers to such a straightforward question.