By Murray Chass

August 18, 2009

The Boston Red Sox have disintegrated before our very eyes. The team that not long ago I considered the best in the American League has become a shell of its former self.

Less than two months ago the Red Sox had a five-game division lead and had won all eight games they had played against the Yankees. But then the Yankees huffed and they puffed and they blew Boston’s house down.

The Red Sox sat atop the A.L. East wall, but then they suffered a very great fall, and all Theo’s magic and all Theo’s men couldn’t put the Red Sox together again.

There was a general manager who lived in a shoe he suddenly had so many holes to fill he didn’t know what to do.

Dice-K and ole Wake went up the mound to fetch a few more wins, but Dice-K fell down and broke Boston’s would-be 2009 World Series crown and ole Wake came tumbling after.

Like Old Mother Hubbard, Theo went to the cupboard to get Big Papi a bat, but when he got there the cupboard was bare and poor Papi still couldn’t hit.

The Red Sox saga is so striking it should be preserved in rhyme. Grandchildren of current Red Sox fans can recite it years from now as their personal sequel to Casey at the Bat:

“There is no joy in Beantown; the mighty Red Sox have struck out.”

How did it happen? Sure, the Red Sox lost a lot of games while the Yankees were playing like the best team in history. But the Red Sox set a land speed record for freefall, plummeting from 5 games in first to 7 ½ games out of first in a crisp 45 games. In 1978, when the Yankees overcame a 14-game Red Sox lead, it took them 54 games.

The Red Sox would like to think it has all been a fairy tale, but it is excruciatingly real.

To start with, the vaunted starting rotation the Red Sox and many others thought they had turned out to be ephemeral. Josh Beckett certainly has held up his role as the No. 1 starter, and Tim Wakefield, with an 11-3 record, was doing more than any 42-year-old pitcher could have been expected to do. But then he strained his lower back and hasn’t pitched since July 8. When he returns, it will be as a 43-year-old knuckleballer.

Jon Lester, the No. 2 starter, has pitched the opposite of the way the Red Sox have played. In his first 10 starts, he was not effective, compiling a 6.07 earned run average and a well deserved 3-5 record. In his last 14 starts, though, he has a 6-2 record and a 2.21 e.r.a.

The best that can be said for Brad Penny (7-7, 5.22) is that he hasn’t missed a start. Unfortunately for Boston and for him, nothing good could be said about John Smoltz, the future Hall of Famer, whom the Red Sox thought would be the mid-season addition who would serve as a second-stage pitching rocket.

Smoltz staggered through eight starts, emerging with a 2-5 record and an 8.33 e.r.a. The Red Sox released him and previously had traded Justin Masterson in their desperate scramble for hitting help, leaving Clay Buchholz (1-3, 4.45) and Junichi Tazawa (1-2, 5.40) as the fourth and fifth starters.

Matsuzaka remains sidelined with an ailing shoulder and a 1-5 record and an 8.23 e.r.a. But like Lester’s ineffective starts, his poor performance came early in the season, when the team was winning and building its lead.

In that same period, David Ortiz swung an invisible bat, hitting one home run and driving in 18 runs in April and May while hitting .185. The Red Sox were in second place most of the time during those two months and didn’t improve their status in the standings until Ortiz was hitting.

The burly designated hitter batted .320 in June and in June and July slugged 14 home runs and drove in 42 runs. As the Red Sox have collapsed this month, though, Ortiz has hit .154 with 2 homers and 5 r.b.i.

Kevin Youkilis, the team’s hottest hitter early in the season, also has tailed off. After having a .402 average May 21, Youkilis hit .238 the next two months, falling to .291 on July 27.

Epstein did not sit idly by watching his ship sink. He scoured major league rosters to see where he might find help. He didn’t get Roy Halladay, but then no one did. With the offense struggling, he couldn’t be blamed for thinking what might have been had he signed Mark Teixeira, but he didn’t and the Yankees did because they were willing to spend more money for him. The Yankees are always willing to spend more money than the Red Sox (see Johnny Damon and Jose Contreras, among others).

More recently Epstein got Victor Martinez and Casey Kotchman. Martinez has helped; Kotchman hasn’t. It’s not easy to rebuild a team on the run, especially when you think you already built a playoff team.

The Red Sox and the Yankees have come to think they are entitled to post-season spots. The Yankees discovered last year that that entitlement no longer exists. In the past I have cautioned Red Sox fans it doesn’t exist. They don’t believe that. But here they are, as of game time Tuesday, trailing Texas in the wild-card standings.

The Red Sox became the wild-card leaders when the Yankees knocked them out of first place July 21. The Rangers ended that run Aug. 16.

Hickory dickory dock the Red Sox ran up the clock, the clock struck one and the Red Sox were done.

Or if they would prefer, It’s raining, it’s pouring the Red Sox are snoring. They went to bed with a bump on their head and couldn’t get up in the morning. Unless they escape their lethargy, the Red Sox may be in for a long winter’s nap.


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