Upon finishing the worst September in Red Sox history, which capped perhaps the worst collapse in baseball history, pitcher Jon Lester only had words of capitulation.
“It wasn’t meant to be.”
It was, clearly, a piece of postgame mental self-preservation – a statement that allowed some anonymous cosmic force to assume responsibility for a one month stretch of baseball so shockingly awful that it will become a new sports shorthand for failure bordering on the inconceivable.
And it sounded rather familiar.
The Red Sox give up a nine-game lead to the Tampa Bay Rays in the wildcard race in a single month. The Red Sox, one out away from beating the hapless Orioles to ensure at least a one-game playoff with the Rays for that wildcard slot, lose on a single by the unheralded Robert Andino, a career .245 hitter.
Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to be a part of the Red Sox past? Bill Buckner’s booted ground ball? A “Curse of the Bambino” and World Series futility for over 86 years?
To be sure, the Rays deserve no small amount of credit, most particularly for Wednesday night, when they came back from a 7-0 deficit to the division-winning New York Yankees in the eighth inning and tied the game with a home run on their last strike.
In that way, Lester was right.
The only reason the Red Sox entered Wednesday with a chance to secure the wildcard and advance to the playoffs was that the commissioner did not have the authority to overrule the principles of mathematics. Before Wednesday’s games began, the Rays and Sox had both won the same number of games, meaning that they both had an equal shot to win the last playoff slot.
By the principles of baseball, however, the Red Sox have been roadkill since September began.
What team worthy of the postseason can go an entire month without winning twice in a row, as the Red Sox did?
What team staking a claim as one of baseball’s best gives up at least six runs in 11 consecutive games, as the Red Sox did before last night?
What team fighting for its playoff life loses five of seven games to the Orioles, who finished at 69-93, 28 games behind the first-place Yankees, having given up 152 more runs than they scored?
No, this was not something of the Red Sox past. This was something unto its own universe.
At least the Red Sox of old made it to the World Series, allowing Bill Buckner to become a croquet wicket on Mookie Wilson’s routine grounder.
At least the Red Sox of old made it to the one-game playoff to allow Bucky Dent to hit his bloop home run.
At least the Red Sox of old were tormented by the memory of the greatest baseball player who ever lived.
The “Curse of Robert Andino” doesn’t quite evoke the same dread.
The Red Sox of old were futile, yes, but elegantly so – a Sophoclean tragedy in stirrups penned yearly for the Harvard Square crowd.
This was a farce.
And there was, quite simply, no logical reason for it.
Yes, the Red Sox had some injuries. But in August, when the Sox were missing the same players, they went 17-12. Had they matched that record in September, they would have won the division.
A pitching staff that gave up fewer than four runs a game on average in June, July, and August abruptly allows 5.84 per game in September. A team that finishes first in the major leagues in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage – and second in batting average – misses the playoffs.
Neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light scientists will one day be able to explain. This Red Sox season? Pity the poor baseball analysts.
An object in motion stays in motion, physics wisely says. For the Red Sox, that motion was downward and unrelenting, a kinetic mental disaster of Newtonian proportions.
Once the Rays’ Dan Johnson hit his ninth-inning home run to tie the game in Tampa Wednesday, there was seemingly only one outcome. The Rays would win. The Sox would lose. Pavlov could have forecasted it with perfect certainty. After a month, it was as much a conditioned response as salivating dogs. Or salivating Yankees fans.
And in that way, this season might be more for the scientists at MIT than the lit majors at Harvard, a singular event that refines the parameters of the possible.
Or, maybe the Red Sox were just trying their hand at a little Molière.