The 2011 Boston Red Sox finished the league first in runs scored (875), second in batting average (.280), first in OPS (.349) and first in slugging (.461). Despite all that and a record of 90-72, the chic preseason favorite to at least meet the Phillies in the fall classic choked.
What's more is that the Red Sox started September with a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs. 99.6%! 9 games up on the Rays. What happened that fateful night was a perfect storm of destiny involving both the Red Sox and the Rays.
Rumors are swirling that Terry Francona will be the first to fall, despite Theo Epstein's words to the contrary. While this hardly seems fair as Francona wasn't the primary culprit in the Sox collapse, it's the nature of the beast. If Francona wasn't responsible though, who was? Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Jonathan Papelbon immediately come to mind.
Crawford finished the season at .255, with 11 HR, 56 RBI and 18 SB. The 142 million dollar player finished the season almost a whopping 40 points below his average. 40 points! You could argue it was the pressure of the big market. You could argue that this year is just the start of his decline.
What you can't argue though is that it was Crawford who failed to make the catch that would have at least kept the Sox alive. Even if it was for just one more inning.
That one play pretty much served as a microcosm of Crawford's involvement with the Sox: on the outside looking in. For some reason he never got comfortable in the Red Sox lineup and if the 2004 team could tell you anything, it's that team chemistry is vital to any pennant run.
Francona moved him up and down the lineup, but Crawford could never find his groove. He looked nervous on the base paths and couldn't find a stroke to save his life. It's only fitting that the last play involves the ball falling out of his glove.
For all the accolades the Red Sox received for hitting, their pitching was less than stellar. In fact, it was atrocious. The team ERA finished at 4.20, good for 22nd. The team WHIP finished at 1.31, good for 16th. The most alarming pitching statistic though has to be the 71 quality starts, better than only four other teams.
Lackey was a big part of that. Lackey's never been a strong ERA pitcher, with a career ERA of 4.10. In 2011 though, his ERA ballooned to 6.41, which just won't cut it in the American League East. This is a player signed to an $85 million deal over five years. Where's the payoff?
Every start Lackey swore was the "start" where he would turn it around; the one start that would be the, ahem, start of his recovery. Turns out it was the start—the start of a course that would find him finishing the year at 12-12. His disdain at being pulled unwarranted, perhaps reflecting frustration with himself more than anything else.
It was a few years ago that Papelbon was being heralded as the next Mariano Rivera, unquestionably the greatest closer in all of baseball (past and present). Since those comparisons, Papelbon has descended slowly into uncertainty.
Sure he's the first pitcher ever to record 30 plus saves in his first six seasons in the big leagues. But does that matter if you blow the one save that matters? Against the Baltimore Orioles nonetheless?
Where's the bragging Papelbon? The Dropkick Murphys Papelbon? The Papelbon who throws with fire and was, presumably, playing for a new contract as a free agent this year?
Instead, Red Sox fans got a closer with a recent history of blown saves. Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS, bleeding into eight blown saves in 2010. Only two blown saves in 2011, but had he converted either one of those two the Red Sox would be in the playoffs, instead of only looking in.
It's easy to single out Crawford, Lackey and Papelbon as the prime culprits for the Red Sox. It takes more than three players to go a staggering 7-20 in the month of September. Yet for all the team's pitching woes, if the Yankees can get by primarily on hitting, couldn't the Red Sox as well?
In theory they could, but only if the players want it. And judging by their play in the month of September, it's clear that the Rays just wanted it more.