SEPTEMBER 28, 2011 – THE DAY THE PLAYOFFS AND FRANCONA WENT DOWN THE DRAIN!

Following is an excerpt from my book ‘ From Beer To Beards, Boston Baseball’s 2011-2013 Roller Coaster Ride’ available at Amazon.com and at local bookstores or by email at baseballworldbjt@yahoo.com.

Fans all across the country were treated to one of the most exciting nights in the history of baseball as these two games played out almost simultaneously. The Red Sox, who four weeks ago looked like a cinch to be in the Playoffs, nine games ahead of Tampa Bay for the Wild Card, were looking at possible elimination after losing 19 of 26 games in the month. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, who had all but been forgotten four weeks ago, had an opportunity to sneak into the playoffs thanks to the Red Sox fold. While everyone was focusing on the fact that the Red Sox had lost their 9 game lead by winning only 7 of 19 games, the more amazing statistic was that the Rays had made up a nine game deficit while winning just 16 of 26 games.

While this drama was unfolding, the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals entered the final day tied for the National League Wild Card with identical 89-72 records. On August 31, the Braves had been in first place in the Wild Card race, 8 ½ games ahead of the Cardinals. The Braves had started September with a record of 80 wins and just 55 losses, while the Cardinals, with a record of 72-64 seemed to be out of the race.

Over their last 27 games, the Braves managed to win only nine while losing 18, slightly better than the Red Sox 7-19 for September so far but bad enough so that the Cardinals made up the 81/2 game deficit, by winning 18 of their last 26, and went into the final game in a tie with the Braves for the Wild Card.

The Braves were playing the Phillies, needing to win to stay alive after the Cards, playing earlier, behind a complete game two hit shutout by Chris Carpenter, had beaten Houston 8-0 to go one half game up. The Red Sox vs Orioles game, the Yankees vs Rays game and the Braves vs Phillies games were all on television at almost the same time. What more could a baseball fan want for the last day of the season?

The Braves and Phillies game went 13 innings before a bloop single by Hunter Pence drove in the winning run for the Phillies for a 4-3 win sending the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series and sending the Braves home for the season. This exciting finish was taking place while the Red Sox and Rays were fighting for their seasons and it was all on national television.

Down in Baltimore, the Red Sox scored one run in each of the third, fourth and fifth innings while the Orioles got two in the third. Lester pitched the first six, giving up two runs on four hits and left ahead 3-2. After a one hour and twenty-six minute rain delay, Aceves and Bard got through the seventh and eight both without allowing Baltimore to score.

In the top of the eighth, the Sox blew an opportunity to add an insurance run when, with Boston ahead 3-2, Scutaro singled to right off Pedro Strop. Crawford then hit a double into the left center field gap. Scutaro was unsure whether the ball had been caught or it had dropped in and hesitated getting to third even though being waved around by the coach. He was thrown out at the plate on a perfect relay from Adam Jones to J. J. Hardy to Matt Wieters. It appeared that Scutaro would have scored fairly easily had he not hesitated.

As a result, the Sox went to the last of the ninth ahead 3-2, instead of 4-2, with their closer, Papelbon who had 31 saves and had only blown three save attempts, coming in.

While this was going on, the Yankees built a 7-0 lead over Tampa Bay after five innings and the Red Sox situation was looking good. The Rays then came up with six runs in the eighth inning, three of them coming on a homer by third baseman Evan Longoria. In the last of the ninth, trailing 7-6, the Rays Dan Johnson hit a pinch hit homer to send the game into extra innings. They remained tied through the top of the 12th inning and went to the last of the 12th within minutes of the Sox going to the last of the ninth.

In Baltimore, Papelbon got the first two Orioles in the ninth, Adam Smith and Mark Reynolds, on swinging third strikes and things were looking even better for the Sox. Then Chris Davis hit Papelbon’s first pitch for a double and Buck Showalter put Kyle Hudson in to run for him. The next batter, Nolan Reimold, went to two and two and Papelbon was one pitch away from sending the Sox to the playoffs. On the next pitch, Reimold hit a ground rule double to score Hudson and knot the game at 3-3 and put the winning run on second. Robert Andino then hit a soft liner into short left that Carl Crawford could not quite reach, Reimold scored from second and the game was over. The Sox had lost the game, 4-3 .

A few minutes later, down in Tampa Bay, in the last of the twelfth, Evan Longoria, facing the Yankees 11th pitcher of the game, Scott Proctor, with the game tied 7-7, hit a home run down the left field line to perhaps the shortest reachable part of the stands in fair play in the ballpark for a walk off home run to send the Rays to the Playoffs and end the Red Sox season.

Baseball had just witnessed the most incredible end to a baseball season that anyone was ever likely to see. To make it all the more incredible, fans across the country had been able to watch all three games on television as they came to an end within minutes of each other.

Red Sox fans were in shock. Just four weeks ago their team was in first place and Sox fans were looking ahead to another American League East win. It was inconceivable that they would not be in the playoffs. Sox fans, after the wins in 2004 and 2007 were getting ready for another World Series.

Ian Browne, of MLB.com perhaps said it best the next day under the headline ‘Wild ride over; Sox’s playoff dream blown away’. He said ‘ The Red Sox had their bags packed for either a one-game playoff at Tropicana Field, or even better, a trip to Texas to start the American League Division Series. But by the end of one final unraveling, they had nowhere to go but home. This after the worst September collapse in baseball history’.

Who could have anticipated that the Sox season would end as it did? How could they lose 20 of 27 games in the last four weeks? How could Tampa Bay make up a nine game deficit while losing ten games in the last month? How could the Yankees have blown a 7-0 lead to Tampa Bay after the seventh inning?

So many things had to go wrong for the Sox in that last four weeks in order for them to be eliminated, it just did not appear possible that it could happen, but it did. For example, in the last 14 games of the season, from September 15 on, when the Red Sox were literally fighting for their baseball lives, they had to start Kyle Weiland, Tim Wakefield and Erik Bedard on the mound twice each.

Prior to this stretch, Weiland had given up 12 runs in his last three starts while pitching just 14 innings for a 7.71 ERA. Wakefield had pitched a total of 146 innings and had given up 88 earned runs for an ERA of 5.42. Bedard had given up 16 runs in 32 innings since joining the team for a 4.50 ERA. The Sox lost 5 of the six games these three started. They pitched 20 innings in six games, an average of 3 1/3 innings per start and gave up 17 earned runs for a combined ERA of 7.65.

In the other eight games of that last 14, Beckett and Lester started three each and Lackey started two. Between them, they pitched a total of 45 1/3 innings and gave up 39 earned runs for a combined 7.74 ERA. As the team was losing 10 of that 14, they had one win and four losses between them. Beckett got a win against Tampa Bay on September 16, going six innings and giving up three runs, two earned and that was the only win by a starter for the entire 14 games. The three other wins in that 14 game period were recorded by Atchison, Morales and Aceves, all in relief.

Obviously, a lack of starting pitching is not the only reason the Red Sox folded down the stretch but it is just one example of a factor that contributed to the overall failure.

The Blame Game started immediately and anyone could have guessed where the ax would fall and that it wouldn’t take long for it to fall.

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