First Pitch: September a stark reminder of Sox' continued slump

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First Pitch: September a stark reminder of Sox' continued slump

ANAHEIM -- So here we are again. September. Or nearly so. Put it this way: after the Red Sox play the opener of their weekend series with the Oakland A's Friday night, the waiver deadline will have passed and the calendar will have turned.

September. Ring any bells?

Exactly a year ago today, the Red Sox were almost 30 games over .500 and were in first place in the American League by a game and a half. The playoffs seemed a certainty; the prevailing question seemed to be whether the Sox would win the division or again have to settle for the wild card.

Then, the team went into a 7-20 dip, a descent that didn't end until the final inning of the final game. Even then, a ninth-inning loss to Baltimore didn't eliminate the Sox from the playoffs. But minutes later, a near-miraculous comeback by the Tampa Bay Rays against the New York Yankees did.

It was the worst collapse in baseball history. The Red Sox had gone from 9 12 games in front of the wild card chase to out of the post-season altogether.

And that was just the half of it. Terry Francona was effectively fired, Theo Epstein left town and the club's name was further soiled when it was revealed that the team's underperforming starting pitchers passed time during games treating the clubhouse like some teenagers' basement, complete with beer, chicken and video games.

A year later, the Sox barely resemble the franchise they appeared to be as August turned into September. The Sox are on their second manager since then, their third pitching coach and who knows how many players.

And yet, in some respects, they don't seem to have moved much at all.

This year, like last, will end without hope of a playoff appearance, making it three years since they last played in the post-season and four years since they actually won a post-season game.

This year, like last, the pitching has too often flat-lined, leading to too many games like Thursday night when the Sox trailed 2-0 three batters into the Los Angeles Angels' first inning. It happened last September when the rotation came unglued and presented opponents with early-inning leads on an almost nightly basis.

By other measures, things are worse. While last September's unraveling was mystifying at the time -- how does a team go from having the best record in baseball to being regularly embarrassed by good teams and bad in the span of a month? -- this upcoming September could be just as bad.

Night to night, the Sox are outclassed on the field. The lineup features exactly four regulars that the Sox envisioned back at the start of the season: Mike Aviles, Dustin Pedroia, Cody Ross and Jacoby Ellsbury.

(Jarrod Saltalamacchia might qualify as a fifth as he still plays most games, but some are as DH while the Red Sox evaluate Ryan Lavarnway's potential to replace him behind the plate next spring).

The rest of the Sox players are either role players given starting spots out of necessity (Scott Podsednik, Pedro Ciriaco) or recent acquisitions filling a lineup hole (James Loney).

As such, the Sox can't be considered favorites in many series. The nine-game West Coast road trip is off to an 0-3 start and the Sox still must play wild-card leading Oakland and a resurgent Seattle club which currently features a better record than the Sox themselves.

A winless trip hardly seems impossible, given how poorly the Red Sox are playing and how much better the upcoming pitching seems to be.

On the final day of August, the Sox sport a ghastly 9-19 record for the month, almost as poor as last September's historic 7-20.

Last year, the Sox saved their nightmarish play for the final month and crushing as it was, the skid was only the final month.

This year? It's as if the Red Sox are getting a running head start into the September abyss, entering the month with exactly the wrong kind of momentum.

Unless the Sox play 22-8 over their next 30 games, they will not finish with a winning record. In other words, it's virtually guaranteed they will finish under .500 for the first time since 2001.

There's no promise that Bobby Valentine will return for a second season, and regardless of what side you come down on regarding the manager's future, the uncertainty of the situation is troubling.

In other words: there's at least the possibility that the Sox at the end of this season could be, in its own way, finish every bit as disappointing as the last. And who thought that was possible a year ago today.

MLB ump saves woman attempting to jump from Pittsburgh bridge

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MLB ump saves woman attempting to jump from Pittsburgh bridge

PITTSBURGH -- John Tumpane can't explain why he approached the woman as she hopped over the railing of the Roberto Clemente Bridge on Wednesday afternoon.

The woman told Tumpane she just wanted to get a better view of the Allegheny River below. The look on her face and the tone of her voice suggested otherwise to Tumpane, a major league baseball umpire in town to work the series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Rays.

So the 34-year-old Tumpane reached for the woman even as she urged him to let her go.

"It was just pure instinct," Tumpane said . "You hear kind of stories of this all the time, different scenarios, people aiding and situation where I was lucky enough to be there to help and try to think of everything I could do, hanging on to her. At times she wanted to go the other way. I was like, 'not on my watch, please.' We were just hanging on."

And saving a life.

Tumpane secured one of her arms. A bystander walked up and grabbed the other while another -- Mike Weinman, an employee for the Rays -- clutched her legs and pinned them to the railing while Tumpane mouthed to someone in the crowd to call 911.

What followed were chaotic moments of panic, fear and ultimately, grace.

"I couldn't tell you how long we were waiting for everyone else to get in place," Tumpane said. 'Obviously another power comes into be when you're hanging on and you know what the alternative is of you letting go and not having other people to help you."

Tumpane, Weinman and the third volunteer clung to the unidentified woman until emergency responders arrived. A police boat raced up the river to the iconic yellow bridge named for the Pirates Hall of Famer who died on Dec. 31, 1972, when a plane making humanitarian deliveries to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed. Now, 45 years later a crowd thrust together by fate brought a complete stranger back from the brink. Together.

"Once they were able to secure her, we were able to talk her back to help us out and we got her back on this side," Tumpane said. "After that I went up to her, she said, 'You'll just forget me after this' and I said, 'No, I'll never forget you.' This was an unbelievable day and I'm glad to say she can have another day with us and I'm glad I was in the right place at the right time."

Tumpane, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, got into umpiring as a teenager, made his major-league debut in 2012 and received his full-time MLB commission in 2016, stressed he's no hero.

"I just happened to be there," he said. "I think I've been a caring person in my life. I saw somebody in need, and it looked like a situation to obviously insert myself and help out."

The aftermath was a bit surreal. After the woman was taken away, Tumpane called his wife, his arms still shaking.

"Not too many times you call your wife and say you helped save somebody's life," he said. "A really special moment."

One that stayed with him even as he prepared to call balls and strikes behind home plate Wednesday night. During breaks in the action his eyes would drift to the bridge just a few hundred feet behind the center field wall at PNC Park.

"It's also hard when you stand back behind home plate and look and you see the bridge in the distance, In between innings and whatnot, just thinking of how things could have maybe been," he said. "Glad it was this way."

Tumpane has no experience in crisis management or suicide prevention. He's spent 16 years living the nomadic life of an umpire. Asked what was going through his head while he tried to coax the woman back to safety, Tumpane just shrugged his shoulders. How do you explain the unexplainable?

"I happened to be in the right spot at the right time," he said. "Tried to be as comforting as I could and talk her through it. Thankfully that was the outcome."