Boston Red Sox collapse and suffer a damning finish

Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 28, 2011

Red Sox, report to the River Styx at dawn.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

These days, there’s no boatman in a dark cowl to take you over to the other side where the souls who wail for eternity are found. They’ve got an elevator now. Just push the “down” button. Don’t worry; you can’t go too low. Pick any rung. Mr. Dante has fine punishments arranged at every level. New rules: No more eternal damnation. They let you out next opening day to try again. Excuses, fine, they’re permitted, too. But for now: Go to hell.

You’ve done it now. You’ve topped all your forebears. That’s a 7-20 final-month implosion, a blown nine-game lead and the worst September collapse to squander a postseason spot in baseball history.

Do the ’04 and ’07 Red Sox teams have to give back their World Series rings now, too? No, no, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.

On this night of a 4-3 after-midnight walk-off loss to the Orioles, the dishonors belong to exhausted Jonathan Papelbon (blown save, defeat), Carl Crawford, whose trapped liner on Robert Andino’s game-winning two-out single is his trademark defensive mistake, and all the brain-dead base runners from David Ortiz to Marco Scutaro who killed innings with their crazy feet.

Now, lets turn to the Tampa Bay Rays who, minutes after the Red Sox had blown a 3-2 lead and lost, won this AL wild-card race for the ages with a walk-off homer by Evan Longoria in the 12th inning against the Yankees. We have a few words for you guys, too. First, gentlemen, please return the thousand-mile magic carpet, the perpetual pixie-dust machine and the vat of voodoo juice. The rest of mankind needs all of ’em back. Now.

Don’t get greedy. You just burned several lifetimes of joy. Those computers claimed your chances of catching the Red Sox were down to nine-tenths of one percent when the month started. Now, go get ready for October.

Longoria, with your two homers, including the winner, please, don’t ever tell anybody how you did it. There’s mystique. Then there’s something even beyond it. Silence is part of the deal. Say nothing and, the rest of your life, people will pass you and say, “There he is.” And they won’t have to say whom.

Dan Johnson, we hardly know what to say. When you hit your two-out-in-the-ninth home run to tie the Yankees, 7-7, it was incredibly improbable. But when that blow proved to be the cornerstone of victory, your swing joined the game’s elite history. The further the Rays go, the bigger it gets.

Okay, that takes care of the Red Sox and Rays. Everybody else, the millions of you, just sit down and stop screaming. The real baseball season is only beginning. If you pass the Boston tombstone, nod out of respect. To fail so greatly, you must first have stature. (Okay, and a zillion-dollar payroll.) But, still, there but for grace go we all.

This Camden Yards scene needs to be set. As the sun sank Wednesday, baseball turned into a world gone wonderfully mad. But as midnight approached, then passed, the glorious insanity fed on itself and went viral.

Scoreboard watching shot up an asymptotic curve with fans of four wild-race-race teams desperately fixated on results of games involving eight different clubs, all of ’em playing simultaneously for hours.

But the best theatre by orders of magnitude — or one of the scariest hair-pulling horror shows on record if you are part of Red Sox Nation — was presented here in Camden Yards. The collapsing Red Sox saw their baseball lives pass before their eyes all night — both on the field against the Orioles and on the scoreboard during an 86-minute rain delay. It was pure devil-made torture.

Has there ever been anything quite like it? Not with me watching.

During the long delay in play, the Red Sox viewed a brand new TV soap opera: “As Our Fate Turns.” As Camden fans watched the Rays game on the big video board, Tampa Bay erased that 7-0 deficit to New York. Yes, the hated Yankees make Sox life heaven then turned it to Hades.

When Longoria’s three-run homer made it 7-6, the Camden crowd bellowed, “Lets Go Rays,” to annoy Red Sox fans in the crowd and inspire their Orioles for that comeback of their own. However, when Johnson connected to create extra innings, the crowd of 29,749 — most of whom never left — went blissfully if damply nuts.

However, this was just the richest part of a wild night across baseball America. Hanging in the balance were two wild-card spots and the delectable possibility that the Red Sox might have to go to Florida on Thursday to play the Rays and the Braves might head to St. Louis for two “play-in” games on the same day to see which teams advanced to the playoffs in October.

Two such sudden-death games, as a cannon-shot introduction to the drama of October baseball, would be unprecedented; and the ideal blend of genuine drama and mega-marketing to advertise the sport.

Reality disagreed. Rays and Cards make the playoffs. No games Thursday.

Three of the four concurrent games were insanely tense. The crowd here had an experience shared with fans in St. Petersburg, Houston and Atlanta, with scoreboard updates, and sometimes video, punctuating the live action.

When the Braves’ Chipper Jones smoked a gapper in the bottom of the 10th that looked like a sure walk-off piece, the crowd began to applaud, then gasped, and cheered even louder when Phils center fielder Michael Martinez made a flat-sprint lunging last-instant snag.

How much did it matter? Oh, only a whole season’s worth. Instead of meeting the winning Cards, the Braves lost in the 13th inning and will now watch October from their sofas, if they haven’t burned down their houses.

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” Mae West said.

More than any end-of-regular-season night in baseball history, this proved it.

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