I don’t usually blog about baseball. On the one hand, I am not totally engrossed in the whole game but a fan of one team in particular, and one or two others a little bit. So I am not a total metrics geek about the whole sport. On the other hand, I also hate the raw, ragged, emotional and ignorant tone of much baseball commentary and blogging online, which reads like the dialogue of half-sloshed, aggressive partisans in some dive. That sort of rant is not worth my time. But this end of the 2011 regular major league baseball season was compelling for this fan.
Not for the first time, I have felt deflated on the first morning after a baseball season ended. Because for Red Sox fans like me, it ended prematurely about midnight last night with a Sox loss in Baltimore. Boston had been playing terribly all September, winning only about five games since Labor Day. They led their division then, but by last night they needed a win over the Baltimore Orioles. The Baltimore Orioles! Last in our division, patsies all year. I was reminded by the announcers of the enormity of the Sox’ domination. Adrian Gonzales was hitting over .500 against them on the year; Dustin Pedroia hit 4 of his 21 homers off their sorry pitching; John Lester, last night’s starter, has a lifetime 14-0 record against their pathetic lineup. Yet here they were, having won three out of the last five meetings against the Sox, bidding fair to keep Boston out of postseason play. Now the Sox were up 3-2, it was the middle of the 7th. Lester had pitched 6 great innings on short rest, weakening to walk 3 batters in the 6th but still keep the tying run off the board. A band of tropical thunderstorms was rolling through the Baltimore/Washington area, and a downpour in Charm City suspended play. Not what the Sox needed, probably. I’m sure they hoped to get one more inning out of Lester, and then go to their Bard-Papelbon combo to close out the game.
But funny things happen when you stop for an hour in the middle of a game. Some players’ muscles will tighten up; a pitcher with 80 or 90 deliveries in his arm already will not be sent out to risk the health of that limb after such a pause. While the Sox were in the clubhouse waiting for the thunderstorm to pass and trying to keep loose, they got to watch the Yankees cough up a 7-0 lead over the Rays, who needed to lose to assure Boston of at least a playoff for the last post-season American League slot. The Yankees did the Sox no favors, treating the contest like an exhibition game, using 11 pitchers at pretty much one per inning. They were not giving 100% to win, but the uptight Rays had dug themselves a deep hole. Inept New York hurling helped the Rays back into a tie by the time the Sox began again. I will say that I do not blame the Yankees; if the situation had been reversed I’d have hoped the Sox would do the same thing to them. Give no quarter, take no quarter. No love lost.
The Red Sox endgame was pretty much what it has been for the last four weeks. Since September they had not won a game in which they’d scored fewer than eight runs. They had blown many late leads, as the setup/closer duo of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon (season-long WHIPS of 0.93 and 0.96 respectively), perhaps overworked, had alternatively or in tandem coughed up a lot of runs. Any way you look at it, you don’t want your setup guy to have 9 losses, as Bard does, or even to have your closer own 4 victories (though Paps blew just three saves all year and lost just once, last night!). And last night was just another bad Sox game in September. Papelbon struck out the first two batters in the 9th, with a wicked combination of a sinking two-seamer, a slider, and high heat (97 mph). But you could see that after that second K he wanted to throw nothing but high heat. He lost his head, started throwing instead of pitching, and just like that gave up a double on a 2-2 count, another double (tie game), and a single (season over). Many major league hitters can hit 97 mph pitches if they know that’s what’s coming. The catcher was a rookie; I am guessing Varitek would have called a different game, and enforced his calls.
So we have all winter to think about it, even if we’re briefly distracted by pro football or the Bruins’ defense of the Stanley Cup. Whom or what do we blame? Injuries played a part. Kevin Youkilis, the Sox’ cleanup guy, missed 1/4 of the season with injuries. Mike Aviles, his most regular replacement at third, should not be in the major leagues as far as I can see; he hits erratically and for no power, and his glove is a liability. The Sox starting pitching was decimated, with two of the projected five starters out virtually all year, and all the others serving time on the DL. Weakness at a few lineup positions is another. Left and right field were only sporadically productive, and catching was also uneven, bot offensively and defensively. Third base sans Youkilis was a disaster. Related to that is the issue of Theo Epstein’s effectiveness as general manager. Theo has been good for the Sox for years, but he seems to have strayed from sound judgement of late. He paid $100 million for Matsuzaki, and over five years Dice-K has had a 49-30 record. That’s over $2,000,000 per victory! Theo arguably overpaid for Carl Crawford, who got off to a horrible start but never recovered to any level above mediocrity, certainly not creating the dependable top-of-the-lineup dynamic with Ellsbury that the Sox had hoped for and needed. And Theo overall really has blown the construction of the pitching staff. Inept starting pitching is thus another reason for the decline. How inept? John Lackey, who “earned,” the home field start to begin the 2011 season, pitched to a 6.41 ERA, with only 9 quality starts out of 28 starts overall. His propensity to give up runs early and then settle down left the Sox in many holes, and he garnered 12 victories only with the stupendous run support of the Sox’ lineup. Josh Beckett, who was “demoted” to the fourth starter in the initial Sox rotation, ended up with 20 quality starts out of 30, 2.89 ERA, and 1.03 WHIP. He and Lester were the only credible starters. Sox pitching ended up depending on the likes of Andrew Miller, of great potential and erratic mechanics (12 starts, 1.82 WHIP), Kyle Weiland (5, 1.66), and Erik Bedard (8, 1.55). The first two were expected to be in Pawtucket all year, the latter was a late-season acquisition who ended up averaging 4.2 innings for his 8 starts. The loyal, willing, but aging and less able Tim Wakefield put up Lackey-like numbers, struggled for weeks to ring up his 200th career victory, and also failed to stem the tide of the late-season slump, in which the Bosox starters averaged 7.50 runs per start for the entire month. Things were so bad at the end that there were rumors a couple of days ago that Boston was looking to pick up a pitcher from another team to start the playoff game that would have been played today if the Sox had won last night. An even more bizarre scenario than in 1948, when the Sox’ top hurlers were all reluctant to start the one-game playoff game against Cleveland, and Boston handed the ball to the likable but mediocre journeyman Denny Galehouse. Finally, failed managerial leadership played a role. I hate blaming Francona, because it is the players who perform on the field, and the manager can’t control that very much. But Tito failed to control the team psychology and collective approach to September’s downward spiral. I am not close to Boston scuttlebutt, but I am not aware that the Red Sox have a lot of problem personalities in the clubhouse. They’re professionals, with relatively low egos and/or positively focused attitudes. When things started to go downhill, Francona went with his “live in the moment” psychology, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future but focusing on the daily task at hand. it was not evident that anyone on the team panicked or gave up. But Francona did not find a way to turn the team’s underachieving, substandard performance around, just as he did not do that at the beginning of the season when they started off 2-10. He couldn’t changed the dynamic, find a way to get the best from his players. That’s got to be on him.