It was not Jonathan Papelbon's ill-timed blown save, John Lackey's historically abysmal season, or the front office's inability to bring in Carlos Beltran, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Hunter Pence at the trading deadline while giving us Erik Bedard (who turned out being pretty useless with a 4.03 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over eight starts) as a consolation prize.
It was neither their horrid 2-10 start nor their cringeworthy 7-20 finish. Nor was it fate, luck, and destiny colliding for this star-crossed and star-laden (John Henry employed the services of 15 All-Stars this season) team.
No, it was none of those things. In a year where so much went so wrong for the Boston Red Sox, the crippling blow might have ocurred in the middle of June, when the first place Sox were taking off and making everyone forget their embarassing two week stretch to open the season. No one knew it at the time, but when Clay Buchholz exited his June 16th start against (who else) the Tampa Bay Rays after lasting just five innings and throwing only 81 pitches, he left with a stress fracture in his lower back.
|Losing Buchholz proved to be the devastating blow|
It was a substantial loss, obviously, but New England wasn't too worried about its baseball team back then. After all, they had just reeled off a nine game winning streak and were in the middle of a four and a half month stretch where they won 80 of the 121 games they played. That's a .661 winning percentage, folks. And if Buchholz was truly done for the season, surely Theo could work his magic and pull some strings to bring in some help at the deadline. We can shake this off, we reasoned. This team is too good, has too many weapons, is firing on all cylinders. We will persevere.
We were wrong.
I believe the loss of Clay Buchholz was the straw that broke the camel's back. Clearly this team was much more flawed than anyone could have imagined, but losing their number three starter who finished sixth in last year's AL Cy Young race and was on pace to toss 200 innings and win 14 or 15 games with a mid-three ERA simply wasn't sustainable in the long run. The already shaky rotation was reduced to Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and a bunch of mediocre fill-ins, and just couldn't hold up over the course of the year. Francona was forced to give a combined 17 starts, essentially what Buchholz missed, to Andrew Miller (5.54 ERA, 1.82 WHIP) and Kyle Weiland (0-3, 7.66 ERA, 1.66 WHIP), not to mention an additional 23 turns to Tim Wakefield (7-8, 5.12 ERA), eight to Bedard and four to Alfredo Aceves to fill Daisuke Matsuzaka's spot in the rotation.
Granted, Buchholz was clearly not the same pitcher who won 17 games and posted a sparkling 2.33 ERA in 2010, but he was still an above average pitcher who likely would have given the Sox an additional two or three wins above the replacement level pitchers (being generous here to Miller, Weiland and co.) who filled his cleats. It's safe to say that if he had managed to remain healthy or return after a month or two on the shelf, the Red Sox would still be playing baseball right now.
Because at the end of the day, surviving the AL Beast is all about starting pitching. The Rays have a deep rotation with David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson, while Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are capable backend rotation guys. The Yankees have an ace in C.C. Sabathia, got great seasons from Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, and Bartolo Colon, and were able to overcome another disaster of a season from A.J. Burnett and an ineffective/injured Phil Hughes. With Buchholz, we had just enough, but when Boston's frontline was basically reduced to two guys, it was only a matter of time before they plunged in the standings. When that pair slipped during September we were officially out of reliable starting pitchers, and in the AL East, that gives you the same chance of success as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.
But if they had Clay Buchholz to soften the blow, to give their rotation a little more depth and a few extra quality starts, we wouldn't be talking about the 2011 Boston Red Sox as the perpetrators of perhaps the biggest choke in baseball history.