Pitching, injuries led to demise of the Red Sox

Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz was asked what he thought went wrong for the team this season.

He looked up for a second, pausing as if to gather his thoughts. Then Buchholz gave a simple answer that said so much.

“Everything,” he said.

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He is correct in that no one factor leads to a team with a $175 million payroll plunging to nearly the bottom of the American League in a span of six months. It was a combination of mismanagement and misfortune mixed with a series of distracting controversies surrounding manager Bobby Valentine that led them there.

An unearned sense of entitlement among many of the veteran players and an imperious front office made the Red Sox an almost wholly unlikable team.

As the season winds down, they are trying to avoid being the first Red Sox team since 1966 to lose 90 games.

But this season, as shockingly bad as it became, is just part of downward trend for the franchise.

Since winning the World Series in four games against the Colorado Rockies in 2007, the Red Sox have been steadily sliding down the mountain they ascended.

They lost in the American League Championship Series against the Rays in 2008, then were swept by the Angels in a Division Series in 2009.

The Sox missed the playoffs entirely in 2010, then suffered the worst September collapse in history in 2011, again failing to qualify for the postseason.

The Red Sox have won only 45 percent of their games going back to the All-Star break in 2011.

“We used to be the team that people didn’t want to play,” said designated hitter David Ortiz, the longest-tenured player on the roster. “Now we’re looking up. We have to get this thing turned around.”

From a purely baseball standpoint, poor starting pitching and a historic plague of injuries led to the demise of the 2012 team.

Red Sox starters went into the weekend with a 5.03 earned run average, 12th in the American League. Jon Lester, the Opening Day starter, has had the worst season of his career, going 9-14 with 4.94 ERA.

Josh Beckett (5-11, 5.23) was even worse. Buchholz, the third member of the trio expected to carry the rotation, had an ERA over 5.00 until mid-July. By the time he started pitching well, it was too late.

“It’s on us,” Lester said. “Everybody knows how important pitching is. It was incredibly frustrating.”

First-year general manager Ben Cherington, constrained in part by a high-salaried roster constructed by former GM Theo Epstein, did not sign or trade for any starters during the winter. He put his faith in Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz, and the idea of turning late-inning reliever Daniel Bard into a starter.

The Bard move proved to be perhaps the worst decision of the season. Bard lasted only 10 starts before an unnerving bout of wildness in Toronto June 3 led to his demotion to the minor leagues.

Once one of the organization’s best pitchers, Bard now faces an uncertain future in the game, given his lack of control and diminished velocity.

The Red Sox are 39-52 in games started by Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, and Bard. Through June 1, their top three pitchers had an ERA of 5.33.

Only 24-year-old lefthander Felix Doubront (11-9, 4.91) exceeded expectations over the course of the season.

“The starting pitching was a burden on the whole team,” said Valentine. “The bullpen was overworked, and it gave uncertainty to the offense about how many runs they would need to score.

“Until Clay got on a roll, we never had that starter you could look to. In the beginning, it was only Felix, and with him, you didn’t know what to expect because he was essentially a rookie.”

The big hurt

As the starters faltered, injuries left the roster unable to compensate. Not once all season did the Red Sox field a lineup that included Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez.

Crawford, who underwent wrist surgery in January, was expected back early in the season. A setback in spring training and then a torn elbow ligament pushed him back to July.

Ellsbury, the talented but injury-prone center fielder, partially dislocated his right shoulder during the home opener April 13. Expected to miss 6-8 weeks, he was out for three months.

Pedroia was hampered for months by a torn muscle in his right thumb that he tried to play through before succumbing to the DL in July.

Andrew Bailey, obtained from Oakland to be the closer, tore a ligament in his right thumb in spring training and was out until mid-August.

In all, the Red Sox had 24 players (13 of them former All-Stars) go on the disabled list 34 times. By the time the season ends Wednesday in New York, the Sox will have had 1,495 games missed because of injuries.

Since 1987, when such records were first kept, no team in baseball has used the disabled list more. The Sox had a franchise-record 56 players on their roster over the course of the season.

But even that doesn’t fully explain the degree to which injuries hampered the team. There were more than 75 days this season when the Red Sox played with a short roster because of players too injured to play.

Beckett, Pedroia, and Gonzalez were among those players whose minor injuries kept them out of the lineup for a series of days but weren’t deemed serious enough to warrant going on the disabled list.

“I thought the little injuries to Beckett were as disconcerting as anything to the [pitching] staff,” Valentine said. “We had to keep him, not disable him, and insert somebody in.

“These things happen in a particular season. But in this season, it added salt to the wound and the wound never healed.”

Deflating losses

Still, the Red Sox were 48-45 on July 19, one game out of a wild-card berth. With 69 games left to play, they were legitimate contenders.

It was a mirage. Ortiz sat out that day with what the team said was a mild strain of his right Achilles’ tendon. The hope was that he would miss only a few days, but Ortiz did not return until Aug. 24. He lasted one game before returning to the disabled list.

Rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks, whose production had strengthened the middle of the order, was hit by a pitch Aug. 10 and broke a bone in his right wrist. That ended his season.

In effect, it also ended the season for the Sox. Beckett, Crawford, and Gonzalez were traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers 15 days later.

“I think the guys kept working to fill the hole and then to fill the next hole,” said Valentine. “It seemed like they ran out of effort once David and Will got hurt. It was just too much.”

As injuries piled up, Valentine was forced to use a different lineup or defensive configuration almost every day. The Sox have had six players start at first base, seven at third base, eight in left field, and 11 in center field.

“You think I wanted to do that?” Valentine said. “If the injuries didn’t have anything to do with the season, then I’m missing something.

“The cloud of when guys were coming back, the uncertainty of it, disrupted everybody. At the beginning, I was trying to maneuver the situation so that when those guys came back, it wouldn’t be too disruptive. But they never came back.”

Valentine became part of the problem, making comments that created headlines and fighting with a coaching staff that was more loyal to former manager Terry Francona.

Sox players summoned owners John Henry and Tom Werner to New York in late July to complain about Valentine. He stayed on the job, but the sour atmosphere around the team never changed.

“It’s not Bobby’s fault, we’re the ones playing,” Pedroia said. “I’d play for him any time. Things haven’t been good for us on the field and we all know that.”

With four games remaining, Valentine looks certain to become the first Red Sox manager fired after one season since Bucky Harris in 1934. His Boston legacy will be presiding over one of the worst teams in franchise history.

But the Dodgers trade created vast payroll flexibility and with it the hope that the Sox can reverse course after what has become several years of dysfunction.

“It has to get better,” Buchholz said. “This season was as bad as it gets.”