Anatomy of a Collapse: What Went Wrong for the Red Sox
Issue   |   Wed, 10/05/2011 - 01:19

At the beginning of September, the Red Sox were a lock for a playoff spot. Three weeks later, after going 4-12 in September, their Wild Card lead reduced to three games, they still were, by any reasonable expectations. I myself proudly proclaimed that they would be just fine. Even on the season’s final day, when the Red Sox found themselves somehow tied with the Rays, it seemed easy enough. With Tampa Bay quickly falling behind 7-0 to the Yankees, all they had to do was beat the Orioles, the worst team in the American League, and they could avert any potential disaster.

Obviously, we were wrong. One strike away from at worst a one-game playoff, Jonathan Papelbon coughed up the game in virtually the blink of an eye, and, literally minutes later, Evan Longoria’s walk-off home run sealed things. The Red Sox had blown a nine-game September lead over Tampa: no other team in Major League history has held such a large lead in the season’s final month and found itself playing golf in October. This dramatic end, however, was merely symptomatic of a gradual demise that began long before that last game — one that extends far beyond Papelbon or Marco Scutaro, whose baserunning gaffe cost the Red Sox a potential insurance run. A combination of astoundingly poor performances in all phases of the game and a few critical off-field issues doomed the Red Sox; we’ll never know exactly how these conspired, but, for a 2011 post-mortem, we should start by pointing the finger at what transpired between the white lines.

In September, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester started a combined total of 10 games. They won exactly two. On four of those occasions, they didn’t manage to get past the fifth inning. The Yankees tagged Lester for eight earned runs in his second-to-last start on September 24th, and Beckett yielded six runs in each of his last two outings: not what we would expect from two historically lights-out guys who entered September with ERA’s of 2.54 and 3.09 respectively. But, when it comes to big-money flops in recent memory, John Lackey may take the cake.

His 2011 season was spectacularly awful, and his gargantuan 6.41 ERA only begins to tell the story. And, as those who watched him this season know, he was not exactly what one would call a class act. To many, the once-dominant “Lack” has finally taken his rightful place as the most egregiously scrubby athlete currently employed in Boston. Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka were neutralized by injuries, forcing the Red Sox to resort to such household names as Erik Bedard, Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller, none of whom were remotely impressive. Tim Wakefield, despite his illustrious career in Boston, simply no longer belongs on a baseball field. Even Daniel Bard, who had at times looked unhittable, caught the bug: his stellar season went down in flames as he posted an unspeakable September ERA over 10 and lost four games.

The pitching, although it was the team’s most consistently mediocre area, was not the only late-season shortcoming. As I read Carl Crawford’s final line for 2011 (.255, 18 steals) I laughed with perverted nostalgia, remembering his days of stealing three bases a game against the Red Sox, on his way to another .300 season. It seemed, too, that every time I turned around in 2011, an expressionless J.D. Drew had just rolled a weak ground ball to second in a key situation. Mercifully, we were spared his presence for all of August and most of September, but he made a glorious four-game return at the very end, going a spectacular 0-15. Unlike Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia did look good at times in 2011, but he faltered badly down the stretch, missing the final two games.

Kevin Youkilis, nagged all year by injury, missed the last two weeks of the season. In all, even MVP-caliber seasons by Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, all of whom accounted for Boston’s AL-second-best offensive showing, weren’t enough to carry the Red Sox in September. There were simply too many holes.

When a team that is expected to win doesn’t, the manager is usually right behind the players as the popular scapegoat, whether deservingly or undeservingly. Four years ago, Terry Francona was Boston’s savior, the man who had done (twice) what no other had been able to do for 86 years. Now, however, as he parts ways with the Red Sox, Francona’s much-lauded cool demeanor seems to have backfired. At times this year, especially in September, the Red Sox’s play suffered from a palpable lack of intensity. It manifested itself in little ways (the failure to run out routine groundballs, for example) and, in the now infamous September 7th team meeting, Francona apparently addressed this issue. Whatever he said didn’t work.
Regarding Francona and his hands-off methods, I specifically remember an incident from mid-July. In the sixth inning of a game against Tampa, with the Red Sox leading 6-4, Francona came to the mound to pull the aforementioned Lackey, who publicly showed him up in an infantile display of rage. Many, even NESN’s Jim Rice, called out Lackey, known for such antics, for his insubordination, but Francona took no disciplinary action. I don’t dispute for a moment Terry’s managerial abilities. My contention is that, once the slide began, Francona was not the right man to turn it around; he’s not, and never was, a guy who could (or wanted to?) exert that level of control. The reality, however, is that clubhouse veterans, as the 2011 Red Sox had in abundance (Wakefield, Varitek, Ortiz, Beckett, even Lackey!), are not always enough to effectively lead a team.

Browsing the internet on the day after the collapse, I came across some interesting remarks from Theo Epstein on the issue of team conditioning, and I would like to offer this as a final factor in what went wrong. According to Theo, the 2011 Red Sox didn’t stay in shape as well as they should have, a no-no for a modern day athlete at any level. In retrospect, this is not all that difficult to see.

Baseball players have never been known as the most well-built of athletes, but some of the 2011 Red Sox evoked images of pot-bellied 1950’s ballplayers smoking in the dugout. We all think of Ortiz and the disastrous Bobby Jenks, who missed the whole year, but look closer: I contend that Wakefield, Lackey, Beckett, Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Matt Albers, all key contributors, suffered from sub-par conditioning. I don’t bring this up only because it may have impaired on-field performance or led to injuries but also because it serves as an indicator of something that was missing in the readiness of this team. When one game is the difference, as in 2011, sending a message of complacency both internally and externally, however slight, is never a good thing.

So, for a seemingly physically and mentally lax team that has just pulled off a collapse of record-breaking proportions, the obvious question is, “Where do we go from here?” For now, I think, the answer speaks largely for itself. The end of the Francona era is obviously the biggest change; whomever Theo finds to fill the void will play a significant role in determining the direction of the team. Whether the likes of Buchholz, Matsuzaka, Lackey and Crawford can bounce back will also be instrumental. In the end, however, the attitude of the 2012 team will push things one way or another. Boston baseball teeters precariously between its pre-2004 hapless pessimism and its post- “curse,” will-to-win dynamic. If the latter is to prevail, next year’s team needs to be better equipped, both on and off the field, to quit after 162 games rather than somewhere around 140.