They Choked

With a 6-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles last night, the Boston Red Sox fell into a tie for the American League Wild Card with two games to play. And boy, did they fall. The Red Sox are 6-19 in September, and a playoff lead that was once a cushy 9.5 games, has vanished.

The timing of the collapse may be the most stunning thing. For 86 years, the Red Sox were “cursed” for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000. They experienced many heartbreaks, from Enos Slaughter’s mad dash around the bases, to Bucky Dent, to Bill Buckner, to Aaron Boone. In 1978, the Red Sox led the American League East by 14.5 games before the New York Yankees stormed back in the second half and ultimately beat them in a 163rd, play in game. The Red Sox are no stranger to heartbreak and disappointment.

Except these are the new Red Sox, the post-curse Sox. The New Sox that stormed from behind to win the 2004 ALCS despite being down 0-3 to the Yankees. The New Sox that traded for Josh Beckett and signed Daisuke Matsuzaka from Japan, while the Yankees had to settle for Jaret Wright and Kei Igawa. The New Sox that won the 2007 World Series while the Yankees were having nightmares about insect infestations on the field. The New Sox that stormed back to make the 2008 ALCS incredibly dramatic, while the Yankees had the month of October off for the first time since 1994. The New Sox that with Adrian Gonzalez, Jon Lester, and Dustin Pedroia were destined to win the World Series long before the first pitch of the 2011 season.

What could possibly go wrong?

There have been other collapses, on a massive scale, since the Red Sox turned the corner in 2004. Of course, we have to start with the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS. The Yankee offense was explosive as they took a 3 games to none lead in that series, as they pounded Boston 19-8. When Alex Rodriguez hit a home run over the monster the following night to put the Yankees up 4-3 in the 6th inning, it was supposed to be the dagger. But Mariano Rivera could not get the final three outs and the Red Sox, eventually survived. And the next night. And the next night. And then they staged their own version of Game 3 – at Yankee Stadium on the night of Game 7, a 10-3 statement victory to, not just effectively but to definitely end the ALCS, and advance to the World Series. But why the collapse? The hitting of Alex Rodriguez, who was solid in the first three games, but didn’t get another RBI in the series after his Game 4 HR, is one reason. But none of the Yankees hit. Whether it was a Pedro Martinez, an injured Curt Schilling or Derek Lowe, no one was hitting Boston’s pitching. And the Yankee pitching, was less than stellar. Mike Mussina was average in Game Five, and Jon Lieber pitched a solid Game Six (his lone mistake was a Mark Bellhorn 3-run HR). But then Joe Torre had a dreadful decision to make for Game Seven: Do you start Kevin Brown (who under-performed all season and was shelled in Game 3), or start Javier Vazquez (who had won only four starts after the All-Star Break)? Brown got the start and was in trouble from the beginning. He was bailed out by a Bernie Williams throw to gun down Johnny Damon at home plate, before David Ortiz belted a two-run home run – on the very next pitch. He somehow got out of the first inning, before leaving with the bases loaded and no outs in the second inning. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

It was a triumph of a team rather than a collection of stars. Yes, the Red Sox had great players, but the Yankees had more, and for little reason. After Aaron Boone tore his ACL in January of 2004, the Yankees signed Mike Lamb to play third base. Lamb never had extraordinary offensive numbers, but was a solid lower-end MLB player over the course of his career. Mike Lamb never saw one at bat for the Yankees, as they would trade Alfonso Soriano and cash to the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez in February of that year. A few months earlier, the Yankees had traded two prospects, Juan Rivera and Nick Johnson, to the Montreal Expos in exchange for Javier Vazquez. Johnson has been frequently injured over the course of his once promising career, but Juan Rivera eventually settled into a nice role with the Angels and in 2009 batted .287 with 25 home runs. The most grave mistake the Yankees made, however, was not re-signing Andy Pettitte, who had been with the franchise since they drafted him in 1990. So when the Yankees did collapse in 2004, mostly due to having no pitching or role players that could bunt a runner over instead of belting him in with a home run, they only had themselves to blame.

The reasons for the Red Sox collapse doesn’t match-up with Yankee collapse. No, the pitching has not been great. In September, the starting pitching ERA is 7.91. But their staff isn’t a collection of overpriced players. They have all proven to be big game pitchers at one point in their career. Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester have all, at one point or another in their big-league careers, have been considered to be one of the top tier pitchers in the league. Beckett may have had the best post-season of any pitcher in recent memory when he went 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in 2007.

The offense is filled with stars, but each player fills his purpose. Adrian Gonzalez fits in with the Boston line-up and is a complete player on both sides of the ball. Dustin Pedroia is one of the most consistent and gritty players in the game. Jacoby Ellsbury has transformed from just a runner trying to get on base to one of the most exciting and dangerous hitters in the game.

Another collapse that we all remember happened in 2007, with the New York Mets. They cruised towards the playoffs and held a 7 game lead over the Phillies with 17 games remaining in the season. I attended the last game they won before their collapse began, a thrilling eighth inning comeback against the Braves on September 13th, 2007, and said to myself that there is no way this team can not advance at least to the NLCS. But then everything fell to the ground. And it really was everything – pitching, fielding, luck, offense. Nothing bounced their way. The arrogance that the Mets had shown earlier in that season – particularly by Jose Reyes and Lastings Milledge – inspired lowly teams like the Nationals and Marlins become desperate to defeat them, even if the games meant nothing. Except that the games did not become meaningless. The “meaningless” losses piled up as the Phillies refused to die. By the final week of the season, it was panic mode. The Mets lost the opening game of the final series to the Marlins. The following day, however, they bounced back with a resounding 13-0 victory. Except that wasn’t good enough. The Mets had to go even further, with Jose Reyes enticing Marlins catcher, Miguel Olivo into a fight. The benches cleared, and Olivo was tossed from the game. A day later, with Tom Glavine on the mound, an inspired Marlins team scored seven runs in the first inning, en route to an 8-1 victory and, with help from the Phillies, a September to forget for Mets fans.

Again, nothing matches up with the 2011 Red Sox. The 2007 Mets, a young team with a third year manager in Willie Randolph, was incapable of handling the pressure. Their attitude, something which is completely alien to the team-first Red Sox, made teams play their best baseball against the Mets. They became a truly hated team. The 2011 Sox couldn’t be the furthest from that. Terry Francona has had a long and successful managerial career. The team is built of veterans who, outside of a few mild David Ortiz home run gazing incidents, know better than to disrespect their opponents.

So why does this team have such a big problem winning in September? Why have they choked? Injuries are one reason to blame. Up until the past week, they had been without J.D. Drew since July and been forced to play Josh Reddick or Darnell McDonald in rightfield. The Red Sox lost Kevin Youkilis for two weeks at the end of August, a period of time that included a Yankees-Red Sox series. He was injured again last week. Josh Beckett has battled an assortment of injuries since May, including back injuries and illnesses. Clay Buchholz, who won 17 games last year and was 6-3 to start out the season, has been injured since May. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka, who although is not the same pitcher as he was when the Red Sox signed him in 2007 or when he was a Cy Young candidate in 2008, has been unavailable due to injury.

Injuries, players and managers will tell you, is no excuse. But it is impossible to overlook the importance of these injuries to the Red Sox team. Kevin Youkilis is the heart and soul of the team. His on-base percentage, power, batting average and flawless fielding at any position he plays is irreplaceable. Tim Wakefield has been one of the most useful pitchers in the past 20 years, but his hit-or-miss knuckleball, and his ever-increasing age, is no replacement for Clay Buchholz.

If there is one glaring mistake the Red Sox have made, it is not in free agent signing, or managerial moves, or in moves made and not made at the trade deadline. Perhaps the Red Sox glaring mistake is never having found a suitable replacement for Jason Varitek. The catcher, who has been an offensive void since 2007, has an incredible knack for calling games and making sure his pitchers are prepared for opposing batters. He was also one of the biggest reason for the Red Sox success.

In July 2004, teammates point to his fight with Alex Rodriguez that sparked the Red Sox to a sensational second half, one that made their ALCS comeback possible. He was a fiery player, very much an old-school player.

For all their Adrian Gonzalez’s, their Jacob Ellsbury’s, their Dustin Pedroia’s, the Red Sox have neglected the second-most important defensive position – the catcher and the mental aspect of the game that he brings. They have tried, and failed. Victor Martinez was traded to the Red Sox at the 2009 trade deadline, but Martinez was an all-offense, no defense option. Martinez could not call a game, which could be a reason for the Red Sox pitching woes in the later half of 2009 and all of 2010. At the 2010 trade deadline, the Red Sox traded for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had been injured and in the minor leagues with the Rangers after being a prized prospect with the Braves. But he has not been any more of an answer. He’s batting .233 this season and the pitching staff hasn’t improved.

We can make theories and all sorts of reasons for the Red Sox collapse until we’re blue in the face. They may or may not make the playoffs. They have already collapsed into a tie for the Wild Card. If they do the playoffs for the second straight year – something which hasn’t happened since 2001-02, perhaps the backstop will be the position that management looks at during a long, New England winter.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo

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