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Red Sox crumble in worst September collapse ever

By Louis Berger

Section: Sports

October 7, 2011

On the night of Sept. 3, the Boston Red Sox were on a roll. They had just defeated the Texas Rangers 12-7 behind a Carl Crawford grand slam and a strong start by Erik Bedard; Bedard’s first win with the Red Sox. They were nine games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild card and just half a game behind the Yankees in the American League East. After the game there were talks that Crawford may have reached a turning point in his disappointing season and that Bedard could be the solid starting pitcher that the Red Sox expected. Nobody could have guessed that this night would mark the beginning of the worst regular-season collapse in baseball history.

What does it take to blow a nine-game lead in less than a month? The Red Sox finished September with a 7-20 record, their worst month in franchise history in the last 47 years. At the same time, the Rays went 17-10 in September and beat the Red Sox in six of their seven meetings. Boston’s starting rotation had a 7.08 ERA in September, the worst ERA in Red Sox history for a single month. This time it wasn’t just the usual suspects—John Lackey, Tim Wakefield and Bedard—who took the blame, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were just as bad. In September, Beckett went 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA and Lester was 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA. On top of this, Clay Buchholz was still unavailable, out with a back injury he suffered in mid-June.

No Red Sox pitcher had more September woes than Daniel Bard. The hard-throwing set-up man was 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA in September. The heir-apparent to Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon apparently couldn’t get anybody out in the last month of the season. The Red Sox front office will have to do some serious reconsidering this off-season when they think about letting Papelbon sign with another team and handing Bard the closer role.

It’s hard to blame the Red Sox offense for the September struggles. The Sox were among the top five in the major leagues for team batting average and runs scored in September. Maybe some players forgot that they weren’t the Designated Hitter (DH), because Boston led the big leagues in errors in September with 26. One error can completely change a game but a month of errors can derail a team.

No teams gave the Red Sox more trouble in September than the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles, both division rivals. Boston went 1-6 against Tampa and was outscored 46-22 in those seven games. Don’t take any credit away from the Rays though; they played their best baseball when it counted most. The Rays’ September success against the Sox put them two games behind Boston with 10 games to play. Then there were the Orioles. For a team that was out of the playoff hunt in April, they played every Red Sox series like the World Series. The Red Sox went 2-5 against the last place O’s, who played tough and gritty like a team that had nothing to lose.

The game that will be remembered most though is the season finale against Baltimore. The Red Sox had a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning and Papelbon was called in to close the game. What were the Orioles’ chances at this point? Mathematically speaking, slim to none because the Red Sox were 89-0 this season when having a lead in the ninth inning. It seemed like this number would improve to 90 after Papelbon quickly retired the first two batters but, after two doubles and a single, the game was over, 4-3 Orioles.

After an unlikely defeat, an even more unlikely victory vaulted the Rays into the playoffs and the Red Sox into their living room recliners. The Rays beat the Yankees in extra innings after trailing 7-0 in the eighth inning. The last time the Yankees lost a game after having a seven-run lead in the eighth inning was 1953. Sure, the New York Yankees lineup at that point looked like the Scranton Yankees, their Triple A affiliate, and they didn’t use Mariano Rivera at all, but the Rays never got discouraged; they kept competing and, to use a tired sports cliché, played their hearts out.

Sept. 28 may have been the greatest night in Major League Baseball regular-season history. It marked the completion of the worst September collapse in Major League history. The Rays overcame immense odds when they could have just called it a season and gone belly up after facing a nine and a half game deficit in early September. The odds were beyond bad—they were improbable; to give it a ballpark estimate, 99.85 percent. According to TotalProSports.com, this was the probability that the Red Sox would make the playoffs as of Sept. 2. After Wednesday’s loss to the Orioles, the Red Sox went to bed that night with a 0 percent chance of playing another game this year and a 100 percent chance of having the most nightmarish off-season a ballplayer could imagine.

On second thought, maybe it won’t be such a bad winter for the Sox; I’ve seen them beat those same odds before.

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