Perhaps the greatest surprise from the Red Sox’ summary dismissal at the hands of the Angels was that Boston was betrayed by the very elements that were supposed to be its greatest strengths.
In Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox had something that no other team in the playoffs — including the Angels — could claim. The Sox had co-aces who had claimed wins in World Series clinchers as well as a closer who had been virtually perfect in his postseason career.
Armed with those elements, it was understandable that Boston general manager Theo Epstein viewed his team as "capable of winning the World Series," even if he understood that such a prospect was anything but a foregone conclusion.
The three pitchers were supposed be separators for the Sox in a series against an Angels squad that was perceived not to have a No. 1 starter, and whose bullpen (with closer Brian Fuentes at the back end) was viewed as suspect.
Yet in the end, all three of the Red Sox pitchers absorbed losses, none more shocking than when Papelbon entered with a 5-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth and saw his day unravel in a 7-6 defeat that ended Boston’s season.
Papelbon allowed a pair of inherited runners to score in the eighth, but when the Sox plated an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, a victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Papelbon got a pair of quick pop-outs, then jumped ahead of Erick Aybar with a pair of strikes to put the Sox in a position to conclude their first victory of the series.
Yet at a time when some members of the Sox had started to think about a Game 4, Papelbon had unexpectedly recorded his final out of 2009.
“It was 0-2, two outs, just waiting and planning on playing tomorrow. Then all of a sudden, one thing led to another and you look back and it was like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ ” outfielder Jason Bay said. “He’s been our guy the entire year. Nobody goes through an entire year being perfect. It just happened it was Game 3, an elimination game in the postseason. … That’s what makes it tough, especially the way things transpired. It’s just, it’s over.”
Aybar singled on an 0-2 fastball, then advanced to second on defensive indifference. Chone Figgins jumped ahead, 3-0, before drawing a full-count walk. Bobby Abreu then fell behind 1-2, fouled off a pitch, then lined a double to left-center to score Aybar and put runners on second and third.
The Sox elected to intentionally walk Torii Hunter (3-for-8 with a homer in his career against Papelbon) to load the bases for Vladimir Guerrero (2-for-12 against the Sox closer. Guerrero swung at Papelbon’s first-pitch fastball. Though the pitch stayed off the barrel of the bat, Guerrero muscled it into shallow center for a two-run single that ultimately propelled the Angels to victory.
“I felt good. I did. I wasn’t able to really locate when I needed to and it proved to be costly,” Papelbon said. “I wasn’t able to stop the bleeding. Your team fights and puts you in that situation, to call upon you, and you let them down. Your team expects you to pull through and preserve that win for you and then you don’t, it’s definitely not a good feeling.”
The outing was an unprecedented one for Papelbon in the postseason. His 0.00 postseason ERA — something that he suggested before the series was “extremely dear” to him — had been forged over 26 innings, the most shutout innings in postseason history.
Just 16 of the 93 batters Papelbon had faced in the playoffs had reached base, good for a .172 OBP. Moreover, Papelbon had made an October career of complete ruthlessness. He had averaged 13.9 pitches per inning in his playoff career, including a seven-pitch, one-inning outing against the Angels in Game 2.
All of those hallmarks of dominance disappeared in a matter of minutes on Sunday. Papelbon allowed six of the eight hitters he faced to reach base. The Sox closer was worked over by the Angels for 32 pitches, with the Angels able to get reads on the pitcher’s plan of attack.
“He was throwing a lot of fastballs middle away and a high fastball away,” Abreu said. “So you can decide and have any idea what you can do on the play and how is he going to pitch you.”
Added Guerrero: “It definitely helps. When you see a closer, usually you don't see that many pitches. And you can never decide if it's command, slider, fastball, things like that. … When [we] saw 20-plus pitches up on the board, [we] also saw the pattern … as to how he was pitching.”
That the Angels were able to do so represented a reversal of one of their most glaring shortcomings in past postseason series against Boston. Every year, the Red Sox had enjoyed the edge over the Halos in the late innings. In 2004, 2007 and 2008, the Halos bullpen had a combined 0-5 record and 5.53 ERA against the Sox.
This time, the Angels bullpen produced a pair of saves with a 1.42 ERA.
“They’re a deep club. We didn’t match up well with them a couple of years. They took it to us,” Angels manager Mike Scoscia said. “We knew going into it one of their big strengths was their bullpen. And you’re not going to get to [Papelbon] very often. But we did this afternoon.”
Papelbon represented the final fallen pillar of the series for the Sox. Already, the Angels had outpitched Lester — the same pitcher who had held them without an earned run in 14 innings in the 2008 ALDS — and Beckett, who carried a six-game postseason winning streak into the series. The “ace-less” Angels had overpowered the Sox’ two front-of-the-rotation pitchers in Games 1 and 2, with John Lackey and Jered Weaver having outpitched both.
The two Sox starters had hoped for a chance of redemption in Games 4 and 5 of the ALDS. Lester was going to pitch on three days of rest and then, had the Sox won, Beckett would have been on the mound in a winner-take-all Game 5.
The scenario was one about which members of the Sox could daydream during the final innings, until Papelbon’s career of postseason perfection yielded to a day of vulnerability.
Papelbon said that he would leave behind the sting of defeat as soon as he left the clubhouse. He set to the task of packing his belongings for the winter after the game. Even so, the Sox closer admitted that he might make a point of replaying this game to drive himself in his preparations for the 2010 season.
“I don’t take anything home with me or take anything into the offseason with me,” Papelbon said initially. “Although when you do go into the offseason after the season is over and it ends like it did today, definitely, definitely you remember those situations when you’re in the weight room in the offseason and when you’re getting ready to prepare. Who knows? I may be replaying this on the TV in my weight room in the offseason and give me a little motivation for next season.”
If that is to happen, Papelbon would likely have to play a major role in the development. It would be no surprise if he proved capable of doing so, after a season in which, despite some struggles, he went 1-1 with a 1.85 ERA and went 38-for-41 in regular-season save opportunities.
All the same, after allowing his first October runs, his aura of playoff invincibility has been changed. The 0.00 that greeted his entrance is gone, and with it, so is the 2009 season of the Red Sox.