While we wait for the Major League Baseball Players Union to collectively decide whether it’s going to agree to the shortened-season terms set out earlier this week by MLB’s forces that be, let’s take a break from two straight weeks of focusing on the 2004 Yankees’ ALCS collapse, and instead turn the tables and look at another classic collection of choking dogs: the 2011 Boston Red Sox.
In spring training, the Boston Herald trumpeted that squad as potentially “The Best Team Ever!” Admittedly, it was a really good team, coming off a somewhat-disappointing 89-73 campaign in 2010 but having added superstar Carl Crawford via free agency and slugger Adrian Gonzalez through a trade with the Padres. The Sox already had holdovers Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew from a team just four years removed from its second World Series of the decade. In the rotation were Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, and Clay Buchholz, and the bullpen was still anchored by Gronk-esque closer Jonathan Papelbon. This team was truly loaded, and expectations were high.
Yet the Yankees were still a talented team as well, and had celebrated their most recent championship just two seasons earlier. The two teams played leapfrog for most of the season for supremacy in the AL East.
When Red Sox fans picked up their Sunday Sun Chronicle on the morning of Sept. 3, 2011, they may have been disappointed that the Yankees still held a half-game lead in the division, but all was still right in the world. After all, the Sox were 84-54 for the third-best record in all of baseball, but also held a nine-game lead over the third-place Tampa Bay Rays, and at worst, a wild-card berth was virtually clinched.
In reality, somebody had figured out that the odds for Boston to reach the postseason stood at 99.6 percent on Sept. 3. Its bats led the majors in OPS, and its collective team batting average stood at .280, which was second-best in baseball.
What could go wrong?
Spoiler alert: plenty.
In a nutshell, the Red Sox won only six games the rest of the way, while losing 18. Still, on the final night of the regular season, a Rays’ loss to the high-flying Yankees, or a Boston win over the last-place Orioles, would clinch the wild-card berth for Boston. Easy — until it wasn’t.
But first, how those gagging Red Sox blew such a big lead and turned a promising season into a collapse for the ages.
On Sept. 3, Lackey and reliever Felix Dubront coughed up nine runs in five-plus innings in a 11-4 home loss to Texas. A day later, the potent Boston bats went silent in a 1-0 loss to a pitching-weak Toronto team that was hovering around .500.
The next night, the Sox’ ship seemed to have righted itself with a 14-0 pasting of the Jays, with ace Lester spinning the three-hit gem and Boston pounding out a season-high 20 hits. The offense continued to roll the next night, as Boston took an 8-6 lead into the bottom of the eighth, but Daniel Bard proceeded to give up five runs on just one hit (along with three walks) and Toronto came away with an 11-10 victory, followed by another Jays’ victory a day later.
What happened next was the defining point of the season, when the Sox went in to Tropicana Field and dropped three straight to the surging Rays, getting outscored 22-8. When the series was over, Tampa Bay’s deficit behind Boston was already down to just three-and-a-half games. A week later, when the Rays came to Fenway and took three of four from the Olde Towne Team, the wild-card lead was down to just two, and Boston had dropped 11 of 14.
What came next was even more alarming. The last-place Orioles came into town with a 62-89 record, just looking to close out another dismal season, and proceeded to take three of four in Boston, even though the Sox outscored the Birds, 32-28 in the series.
At this point, there was only a week left in the regular season, and Boston still held a two-and-a-half game lead over the Rays, but the Sox’ last six games were all on the road — at Yankee Stadium for three, and three to close out the season at Camden Yards. The Rays, meanwhile, had all of their remaining games at home, against the Jays and the Yanks.
Predictably, the Red Sox dropped two of three in the Bronx, and the lead was just a single game for the remaining playoff berth as the final series in Baltimore began.
Boston had started its season with a ghastly 2-10 record (including an 0-6 start), but had finally gone over .500 in mid-May, and in between April 15 and Sept. 3, the Red Sox had a majors-best 82-44 record.
The Sox and Orioles split the first two games of the final series, and the last night of the regular season unfolded with a simple scenario: Boston just needed to beat the worst team in the majors and it was in, otherwise the Rays would need to top baseball’s best team, the Yankees, and hope against hope that lowly Baltimore could find a way to pull out a meaningless win.
If I had told you the Rays would fall behind, 7-0, in the eighth inning at home and the Red Sox would send in closer extraordinaire Papelpon in the ninth to close out a 3-2 playoff-clinching victory for Boston, you would like your chances. But then the unbelievable happened.
New York pulled its starters with such a big lead, and the Rays rallied to tie it in regulation and got a 12th-inning home run from Evan Longoria to cap an implausible victory — three minutes after the Orioles had recorded three straight hits in the bottom of the ninth after Papelbon had struck out the first two batters.
Incomprehensibly, the Rays had won, the Sox had lost, and the Rays were in second place in the AL East for the first time since May 23.
During the 6-18 swoon to close out the season, here are the goats for Boston’s September choke artists: on offense, Youkilis (.167 BA), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.162, 27 Ks in 68 ABs), Jed Lowrie (.140), and Jason Varitek (.077 — a mind-boggling 2-for-26); on the hill, I present to you starters Lester (1-3, 5.40 ERA), Wakefield (1-3, 5.25), Beckett (1-2, 5.48), and Lackey (0-2, 9.13), along with relievers Daniel Bard (0-4, 10.64 ERA), Andrew Miller (0-2, 11.70), and the immortal Dan Wheeler (0-1, 10.38).
When it was all over, rumors of chicken being chomped and beer swilled in the clubhouse came to light, and ultimately the choke and the disrespectful behavior of certain players cost manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein their jobs.
A year later under Bobby Valentine, the Sox slogged to a 69-93 record, but in 2013, with a rebuilt team that had only Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Ortiz among its position players from that 2011 squad, the Red Sox put the embarrassment of 2011 behind them and captured their third championship of the century.
Just like they wrote it up.