When it’s late September and you are sitting at Fenway Park in the freezing cold, staring at the scoreboard, you expect it to read something like:
Boston 91-62 (–)
New York 91-61 (1/2)
Tampa Bay 87-66 (4)
Toronto 73-80 (18)
Baltimore 64-89 (27)
Instead, in 2010, it reads like like nothing anyone wants to see — a visual reminder of impending defeat.
For Josh Nason, sitting at Fenway Park last Monday night was the proverbial nail in the coffin. It was cold and lifeless in the bleachers while the Red Sox played an unofficial exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles. Nason watched the energy of Fenway fade in front of his very eyes and it quieted the tiny voice of hope that spoke from the back of his mind.
Instead of the Red Sox sitting atop the AL East with 91 wins, they sat on the outside of the playoff chase, looking in. When I asked him where the end was for him and if he had any hope, he began emphasizing looking the positives –a signal he admitted was a symptom of defeat.
“I really, really would like them to get to 90 wins as that would be an incredible accomplishment considering the injury-plagued season this team suffered through. They need to win 6 of their final 10 to do it and they’re playing the Yankees for six of those games.” Nason said.
Josh Nason is a freelance mixed martial arts journalist, who ironically used to write SmallWhiteBall.com in Evan Brunell’s MVN Network. Today he’s calculating the potential impact of Ryan Kalish in 2011 and hoping for 90 wins, when he should be looking at ALDS matchup possibilities for this year.
That’s what everyone was doing at this time last year. But back then, things were a little different.
It was September 25th, 2009 and it marked the beginning of a six-game stretch where the Red Sox did not win a game. The Wild Card was securely in-hand and it was a good thing because Boston was swept by the New York Yankees in the Bronx. The Red Sox went down three-straight games losing to Joba Chamberlain, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettite.
The media questioned whether the Sox could beat the Yankees in the ALCS. The team returned home to Boston amidst the scrutiny and promptly dropped three more at home in a sweep by the Toronto Blue Jays, including a 12-0 spanking at the hands of Roy Halladay in the series finale.
Luckily, the Red Sox ended the 2009 regular season facing the hapless Cleveland Indians and reclaimed some of their dignity by sweeping the Tribe in front of a jittery Fenway crowd. But the damage was done and the psyche of a team that should have been battle-tested and ready for war was fragile and easily disrupted.
The Red Sox were making the playoffs, but they were going in upside-down and backwards.
It was supposed to be an epic David vs. Goliath battle in the 2009 ALCS between Boston and the New York Yankees. It was supposed to be the grandest of stages and largest of stakes.
Instead it ended with whimper, finished at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a team the Red Sox historically controlled in Octobers past. The Angels knocked a monkey off their back and the Red Sox fell to the ground as dead weight, heavy like a wet pile of leaves on your front lawn.
Last season’s team had a healthy lineup, a star-studded rotation and a dominant bullpen. Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon presented a 1-2-3 punch in the 7-8-9 frames that guaranteed a knockout. Dice-K was lights out in September and we actually started wondering if Clay Buchholz was the real #1 going into the ALDS. Add that up, add Jon Lester and a vintage Beckett and you should have seen a deep postseason run.
But something was wrong with that team and it fell flat on its face. Making the 2009 playoffs felt good, but it didn’t feel right. Not making the playoffs in 2010 doesn’t feel good, but it feels right.
After Dustin Pedroia rejoined the disabled list in mid-August, all expectations for the Red Sox were put to bed. All that remained was bitterness, daydreaming and fleeting hope.
Talking to Red Sox fans from California to Maine, you hear a wide array of opinion and analysis on the team. My buddy Drew, who is known to defend the hometown team until the bitter death told me of how strange his September has been.
“This is usually a month where I can focus on playoff atmosphere baseball and put the NFL on the backburner (except for Sundays). This year I am actually at full- NFL speed in September and I hardly watch baseball. I hope 2011 is not like this.” Drew said.
I asked him how it compared to last year.
“Last year, in late September, I went to NYC to see the Sox at the new stadium and they lost 3-0 to CC Fatsbathia. I remember thinking that for this team to make a run in the playoffs; they were going to need to hit playoff pitching a helluva lot better than they did the entire second half. It ended up being their downfall as they never got it going against good pitching.”
Making the playoffs in 2009 was sweet, but the ending was bitter. The ending this year is not going to be bittersweet. It won’t be heartbreak or a stomach punch. It won’t be anything except a period at the end of a sentence and everyone is OK with that.
The remainder of the 2010 season is a formality that we are all sitting and observing while the tiniest of autumn-orange flame flickers in the back of our minds. That hopeful, but ridiculous, ‘what if’ never goes away.
What if? What if? What if the Red Sox win all of the rest of their games and Tampa and New York lose most of theirs?
As soon as that passes you are snapped-back to reality and you know it’s time to shut it down. As bad as it’s been, it’s not as painful as last year and I would take that 2009-pain over this 2010-apathy.
While it’s fun to watch Ryan Kalish do his best Trot Nixon impression, it would be more fun to be backing into the playoffs and making up excuses for any glaring weaknesses. Watching a team coast into the offseason is like watching an opening act that won’t get off the stage. You just stare ahead waiting for an inevitable ending.
The next chapter for your Boston Red Sox is the offseason and Nason thinks this might be the biggest offseason in Theo Epstein’s tenure.
“He’s got a ton of money off the books and a few prospects to work with. Can he be drastic or are we looking at another try at what they started with in 2010?”
Defense and pitching was what they were trying for in 2010. They got very little of either and a heaping pile of injuries so I’m not sure what to make of this season in terms of strategy. I do know that I have heard a lot of people say what Nason told me next.
“There is part of me that hopes the Yankees win the World Series,” Nason said. “It’s blasphemy, I know, but I think that it will make the Nation angry enough to demand better. We’ve been in this dreamy state for too long now. It’s time to demand and expect excellence like we used to.”
Is that the answer? I’m not sure I can stomach back-to-back Yankees championships again. It sucked in the 90’s and I would probably feel worse now. After a bad 2010 season, I would like for the National League to run the tables and leave the AL out in the cold.
In New England, Red Sox fans have been put out in the cold too early for two years in a row.
2010 might have been different than 2009, but either way; October sucks without Red Sox baseball.