By HARVEY ARATON
BALTIMORE — There has been great cruelty and suffering for theBoston Red Sox and their famed nation across the decades. But seldom has a bizarre set of circumstances ever occurred that left them with the sick and sinking feeling they had shortly after the clock struck midnight Wednesday night at Camden Yards.
Taking a one-run lead into the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles, one out away from a 3-2 victory and an extension of their season, closer Jonathan Papelbon surrendered three straight hits as the Red Sox dropped a 4-3 decision to put their postseason fate into the hands of the Yankees in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Moments later, Evan Longoria homered to give the Tampa Bay Rays an 8-7 victory in 12 innings and the American League wild-card berth, finishing off a historic collapse by the Red Sox, who led the Rays by nine games on Sept. 4.
If anything, the final night of the regular season turned out to be a microcosm of the month for the Red Sox and the Rays. The ending was especially stunning as Carl Crawford — the Red Sox’ $142 million free-agent left fielder taken from the Rays — failed to catch a sinking liner off the bat of Robert Andino, sending Nolan Reimold home with the winning run.
“I knew I couldn’t dive for it, had to get under it,” Crawford said. “I think the ball tipped my glove. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of something like this. It will go down as one of the worst collapses in history.”
Having lost 20 of 27 September games, the Red Sox will suffer a long, cold winter mulling over countless what-ifs.
“We had 161 other games besides this one to get into the playoffs,” said the second baseman Dustin Pedroia, whose home run had given the Red Sox their 3-2 lead in the fifth. “We didn’t. It’s our fault. It wasn’t just this game.”
But from this excruciating game, the Red Sox will remember being unable to push across an insurance run or two against the Baltimore bullpen in the eighth and ninth innings Wednesday night.
In the eighth, shortstop Marco Scutaro turned to see if a drive into left-center field by Crawford would be caught and his hesitation led to him being thrown out at the plate. In the ninth, the Red Sox failed to score after putting men on first and third with none out.
“We wanted so desperately to win,” said Red Sox Manager Terry Francona, whose two-year option on his expiring contract has not been picked up yet by the Red Sox. “We just couldn’t hold on.”
Their night began so promisingly, the good news from the west coast of Florida flashing in their faces on the scoreboard in right field. The Yankees took a 5-0 lead over the Rays when Mark Teixeira hit a grand slam in the second inning. The Boston fans in the crowd let out a roar that might have cracked a few warehouse windows.
The Rays, later falling behind by 7-0, had to be on the way down, and if they were, all the Red Sox had to do was defeat the Orioles, the annoying but lowly, last-place Orioles, and they would be home free, on the postseason road.
“We got a lot of destinations possible tonight,” Francona had said before the game. “We’ll be happy to go anywhere but Boston.”
But this wildest of wild-card nights would include a 1-hour 26-minute seventh-inning rain delay during which the Red Sox watched the Rays rally for 6 runs in the eighth on the multiple television screens hanging in their clubhouse. When the rain stopped and the tarp was removed, they reappeared in their dugout just in time to see that Mariano Rivera was not on to close for the Yankees and to witness Dan Johnson’s pinch-hit home run with two outs that sent the game into extra innings.
Has there ever been a more unusual night in the history of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry without them setting foot on the same field?
All the Red Sox had wanted was a chance to play on, even if it had to be a 163rd game against the Rays in St. Petersburg. To that end, Boston’s executive vice president and general manager, Theo Epstein, was said to be exploring the possibility of claiming a starting pitcher off waivers — Fox Sports reported them considering the Kansas City left-hander Bruce Chen.Convention and summerlong form had abandoned the Red Sox during a steep slide that left them tied with the Rays. Francona’s lineup reflected their desperation. Jon Lester was pitching on three days’ rest, and he provided six solid innings. Ryan Lavarnway, the September call-up who started at catcher Tuesday night by default and hit the first two home runs of his major league career, was behind the plate again despite the availability of the semi-regular Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Lavarnway hit fifth against the Orioles’ right-hander Alfredo Simon while Crawford batted eighth, his contract notwithstanding.
“Right now what we do as a team is so much more important than what we do individually,” said Francona, with the mind-set of a franchise teetering on the abyss.
Lavarnway did not get a big hit but he acquitted himself well when Scutaro fielded a fifth-inning bouncer by Reimold and threw out Mark Reynolds trying to score from third.
Scutaro also made a terrific play in the sixth. With two on and none out, he ranged far to his left for Vladimir Guerrero’s grounder and flipped behind him to Pedroia to start a 6-4-3 double play. The Rays were still losing. The Red Sox had every reason to believe.
Big trouble seemed to be brewing for the Red Sox when Alfredo Aceves — a former Yankee in the ever-thickening plot — hit two batters when play resumed in the seventh. But Aceves struck out Andino and got the troublesome J. J. Hardy on a bouncer before giving way to Daniel Bard in the eighth and Papelbon in the ninth, when it all went awry.
Papelbon struck out the first two hitters he faced before Chris Davis smacked a double to deep right. He got two strikes Reimold, who drove an outside fastball into the right-center gap for a ground-rule double. Then came Andino’s drive toward Crawford, whose inability to catch it concluded a dismal first season in Boston.
While the Orioles celebrated, the Red Sox trudged into their clubhouse, just in time to see Longoria’s second home run of the game in St. Petersburg officially end their season.
Asked for a reaction to the extraordinary circumstances, Papelbon said, “What do you expect my reaction to be?”
His wide-eyed, almost shell-shocked look said it all.