BOSTON -- Theo Epstein and Terry Francona aren’t in a position to say it, and neither are the Red Sox players, lest they be labeled as whiners, excuse-makers or worse, especially in these parts.
So I’ll say it for them. The Sox missed the playoffs because of a preternatural run of injuries, the likes of which cause even the best-laid plans to get tossed into the shredder.
I’ll make my argument brief.
People want to say the Red Sox fell short because of a lousy bullpen and poor performances by Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Well, when the Red Sox arrived in San Francisco in the predawn hours of June 25, the bullpen already was a shambles. Jonathan Papelbon had blown big games against the New York Yankees and the Colorado Rockies. Francona had employed 10 different arms in the bullpen, witnessed the flameouts of Scott Schoeneweis and Joe Nelson, and discovered that Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen were not a trifecta worth betting on.
Beckett? He had one win. Lackey was winning, but shaky.
And yet, look at where the Red Sox were in the standings. After a sub-.500 April, in which Francona was still sorting out how to use David Ortiz and Mike Lowell and Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, the Red Sox were 44-30, in a virtual tie for the wild-card spot with Tampa Bay, two games behind the Yankees. They were on a pace to win 96 games. From May 1 to June 24, they were 33-18, a .647 winning percentage, which over 162 games translates to 105 wins.
In other words, even though most of their flaws were already exposed, they were winning. They’d just won six in a row before dropping two of three to the Rockies, they were averaging 5½ runs a game to lead the majors despite missing the catalyst of their attack, Jacoby Ellsbury, and like earlier versions of their best selves, found ways to overcome their shortcomings.
They were winning with an unreliable bullpen. Winning with an ineffective Beckett and up-and-down Lackey. Winning with a mix-and-match outfield.
And then in the span of three days in San Francisco, it all changed. Dustin Pedroia broke his foot and was done. Clay Buchholz strained a hamstring and missed three starts. Martinez broke his thumb and missed a month. A few days later, Varitek broke his foot. Fast-forward to August, and Kevin Youkilis tore a muscle in his thumb, and he was done. Ellsbury never came back. Mike Cameron had to call it a season.
It’s that simple, even when Epstein says it isn’t. Yes, we can all cite games the Sox could have won, should have won, in the last couple of months of the season, even playing with what they had. We can say Epstein should have acted more boldly at the trading deadline to bolster the 'pen. We can all point to Beckett -- who missed 11 starts with a back injury -- and say if he’d only won more games.
But the reality is, the pitching was actually better after June 24, the team ERA dropping from 4.34 to 4.07, more than a quarter of a run. Where the Red Sox were not the same was at the plate. From scoring 5.5 runs a game, they fell to 4.6, nearly a full run off. And they weren't the same defensively. Which is what happens when you lose Youkilis, Pedroia, Martinez and never have Ellsbury.
From the day they arrived in San Francisco and Dustin Pedroia fouled a ball off his foot, the Sox went 45-43. Two games over .500.
“We’d like to rewind, start over, do 162 over again,’’ Epstein said Sunday. “See how it turns out. Maybe with some different breaks, some different health, just do it over, we’d feel pretty good about our chances. But that’s not the way you get to do it. And this is the way the 2010 Red Sox turned out.’’
It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact. Rewind this season with better health, and I would have taken my chances on this team. You bet I would. Feel free to call me an excuse-maker, but I prefer to see things for what they are. This team was built to win -- and was winning -- until the wheels fell off.