By Bill Chuck
Special to CSNNE.com
The baseball season is often described as a marathon, not a dash. But I see it as a long, 162-game game journey that starts with preparation in the March Florida sun, and ends in the cool evenings of September, with the ultimate destination being the Promised Land of postseason baseball in October. With that in mind, I would love to see a topographical map of the 2011 Red Sox season.
I can picture the climb up the mountain in April, as the team began below sea level (or C level for you academics) until they arrived at the top of Mt. Aleast (that is AL East, in case you dont recognize my fantasy mountain), viewing out on the rest of the baseball world. Then came the long descent of September deep into the valley (reminiscent of the quote, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil empire, especially when they dont play their full starting lineup.) Finally, last night, as the team was about to step off the precipice, the bullpen and Jacoby Ellsbury enabled them to remain on terra firma.
But thats just the big picture. The journey of the season began on the wrong path, in the Red Sox famous 0-6 beginning, which, after this month, almost feels like the good old days. Really the farthest underwater this team went was on April 15 when they were at 2-10 after a loss to Toronto. But things started improving from that point on. After a few false steps, the team finally reached level ground, also known as the .500 mark, on May 15 when they finished off a three-game sweep of the Yankees. They stood at 20-20 on that date. I want to remind you that from that point on, the Sox and the Tigers, who everybody feels really good about, have played at virtually the same level. Boston is 69-50 and Detroit is 70-49.
Returning to our map, by the time the Sox completed that first ascent from the muck and mire of below .500, they put together a seven-game winning streak and they were on their way to the scenic route where they could begin to look down on the rest of baseball. One of the great breaks the Sox had on this journey was that neither New York nor Tampa had gotten off to a particularly great start either. Even as Boston was underwater, they were never further than five games out of first. That May day when they reached the .500 mark, the Yanks were only 20-18 and Tampa was 23-17. The Indians were 24-13 on May 15 (they are 56-66 since).
Their climb to the top of Mt. Aleast took 50 games. On May 26, they defeated Detroit and, at 28-22, they were in a virtual tie for first with the Yanks. And they kept working their way above .500. These intrepid travelers were becoming an A-team. By game 65 on June 12, the team had won a season high nine games in a row and were 39-26 overall.
Okay, take off your backpacks for a moment and as we enjoy the view; I want to give you a little perspective. Yes, the Sox were in first place at this point, with a game-and-a-half lead, but our memory is a weird tool. It can remember some things perfectly well, but can also distort others just as well. Perhaps it is the thin air you breathe at the high level of great success that may make you a little lightheaded and not enable you to think or remember clearly, but let me set the record straight: Even after the Sox went 16-9 in June and 20-6 in July, at a time when they were called the greatest team in baseball, they never had a first place lead larger than three games. Yes, I know we are talking now about the diminution of their Wild Card lead, but it is important to understand they never pulled away from the pack (read that as the Yankees) to have breathing room.
Along the 2011 Red Sox season, there are a number of key dates. We have discussed reaching .500, and moving into first place, but for me June 16 is a critical point on the map. On that date, the Sox beat the Rays, 4-2. They were in first place with a game and a half lead. Clay Buchholz earned the win going five innings. Thats the last time he pitched this season. It was exactly one month since Daisuke Matsuzaka last pitched before Boston lost him for the season. That May 16 date, to me, wasnt as significant because I regarded that as addition by subtraction. But on June 16, to lose not only another 20 of your starting five, but also to lose one of the big three of Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz, became a milestone moment on this journey. But there were six weeks to go until the trading deadline; surely the Sox would add another starter beyond the caliber of Erik Bedard. They didnt and dont call me Shirley.
It was also significant because the next day, the Sox' map led them to distant lands: the National League. This proved treacherous because of the one dimensional skill of David Ortiz (I dont regarded home run preening as a skill). Big Papi can hit. He can hit with the best of the designated hitters in MLB history. But while the Sox played eight games in a row in NL parks from June 24 to July 3 and went 5-3 (Pittsburgh and Houston helped), Ortiz came to the plate just 13 times and went 0-for-11. By the time interleague play was over, the lead again was a game and a half, but this time it was held by NY as Boston was back in second place. By the way, they led Tampa by just 2.5.
With the July 31 trading deadline approaching, on July 27 the team had reached its highest peak to date. They were 26 games over .500 at 64-38, and for the third time in three days held a three game lead over the Yankees in the division. In the Wild Card hunt, their lead was 8.5 over the Angels and 11.5 over the Rays. And John Lackey had just won his fourth straight start. All was good, but we know now that what the front office and Red Sox Nation was seeing was actually a mirage.
But it took a little over a month before the vision became clear.
The highest peak of the season was reached on August 31, when Beckett and company defeated the Yankees (again), 9-5. They were 31 games over .500 and in first place by a game and a half over New York, leading Tampa Bay by nine games in the Wild Card race. It was time for the final leg of the journey. There was just a month to go to reach the Promised Land: the postseason. This should be so much fun, well even bring the kids along. What could go wrong?
In game 137, on September 2, the Sox lost to Texas, 10-0. You can see it as just another loss, just their second in a row, or you can look back and notice that less than a week before they had lost to Oakland, 15-5. Two losses in a week by 10 runs each is not a good indicator. Their largest losses of the season were way back in April and early May, each by 11 runs, ironically by the two teams that are chasing them now, the Rays and the Angels. But that was then. This was September and the Sox were a mere half-game out of first place and 9.5 up in the Wild Card.
But we know what happened: potholes, mudslides, and alligators biting butts. The map never showed how dangerous traversing the land could be. It got so bad that last night, in the Yankee Stadium darkness, they were just one step from stepping into the abyss of being tied for the Wild Card with three games left. But the Yanks brought in Scott Proctor, who is a one-run-worse-per-game pitcher than John Lackey (7.41 to 6.41) and, between him and Jacoby, the night had a happy ending.
Maybe this long 2011 journey can have a happy ending as well. The homer last night might prove to be the impetus to help this team unload the baggage it has been carrying and reach its destiny. Im referring to the postseason, not Baltimore. Maybe they have peaks ahead, maybe they have valleyed-out. Maybe they stop singing Paul Simons Slip Slidin Away and start singing the Grateful Deads Truckin because, as Jerome Garcia and the boys sang, Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it's been.