THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

It wasn’t just the injuries that hurt

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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The moments are easy to recall: Jacoby Ellsbury’s ribs making contact with Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia dropping to the dirt in the batter’s box, Josh Beckett walking off the mound in the rain at Yankee Stadium. As the injuries mounted, they became part of the refrain, part of the excuse for not having the season the Red Sox expected.

But while the injuries clearly hurt the Sox’ chances in the tough American League East, blaming them for Boston’s inability to make the postseason is too simple. The failures were deeper and more frustrating for the participants.

With all the injuries, the players still can see how close they came. With flawed teams ahead of them in the division, and even with major roles being played by Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, and Daniel Nava, the Sox still could have played deeper into October.

That they won’t is the result of many factors, from a bullpen that lacked consistency — especially in middle relief — to a rotation that struggled after the top two starters, to an inability to win close games. Yes, and the injuries, too.

“Our margin for error was small,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “That doesn’t mean you can’t win. And we’ve lost a lot of tough games. We’ve lost a lot of walkoff games on the road, 13.

“But if you have to play perfect, OK, let’s try to play perfect. It’s too easy to sit and go, ‘Well, we had injuries.’ That’s too easy.

“During the season, you’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how are we going to win?’ And sometimes we didn’t do that good.’’

So the Sox lost, marking just the second season under the current regime in which they missed the playoffs and did not win at least 95 games. That’s why, for the first time in Francona’s tenure, the baseball operations and field staff met for a breakdown of the season Friday.

“We lost,’’ Francona said, simply. “I’m not happy about that because I feel like we’re still good enough to win, even in our division. But I don’t know. We’ve not made the playoffs, what, twice? We’re trying to get better. But I know that I’ve tried hard to do everything we could and remain positive and give it a fight. We weren’t good enough.’’

Stumbling out of box
The losing started back in April, when the team limped to an 11-12 record. Angst and disenchantment seemed to be the dominant theme, as the manager struggled to find answers amid a difficult transition. Stars were no longer stars. Role players were not performing. It made for tricky navigation through the clubhouse, especially for Francona.

“Sometimes I think doing your best is being patient, getting out of the way, sometimes maybe it’s giving somebody a kick in the pants,’’ Francona said. “I was frustrated early on, in April. I think it was evident.

“A lot of our constants weren’t constants anymore. It was hard for me. All of a sudden, do we hit for David [Ortiz]? Do we not hit for David? Do we put David in the lineup? Do we put Mikey Lowell in the lineup? It was hard for me.

“I was very unsure of what I wanted to do sometimes. That’s not a good feeling. So once we kind of got through that, then we started playing better, then we got beat up.

“But I felt like from the first month, you saw less mistakes, guys were kind of figuring out how we wanted to play. Because that’s what we try to do — we want our guys to play, we don’t want them looking in the dugout.

“But it took us a little while to get there, and that’s my fault. Coming out of spring training, I should have realized we had more new guys. There was just some uncertainty and it took us a while to get going.’’

They did right the ship enough to remain technically in contention until the final week of the season. So, was this Francona’s finest season at the helm of the Sox? Pitching coach John Farrell says, unequivocally, yes.

“Without a doubt,’’ said Farrell. “Because of the adversity that was faced, the ever-changing roster, the ever-changing lineup in a given day, most of them surprises and on very short notice. They’re key guys.’’

Francona should be considered for his first Manager of the Year award, but he will be hard-pressed to overtake the Rangers’ Ron Washington or the Twins’ Ron Gardenhire.

“He’s had to handle a lot,’’ said outfielder Mike Cameron. “He had to handle a situation with a star player earlier in the season, had to handle the balance between trying to put a team on the field that’s been competitive. So many young guys, so many guys that have been hurt. He just tried to manage it as much as possible.

“He’s had to handle different scenarios — Mikey Lowell’s situation, Papi’s situation, trying to find a balance of playing guys that were going to come off the bench now playing a lot. The young kids, trying to find spots to put them in to be successful, and then you have some young guys in the pen, trying to find the right mix and match to deal with what you go through in the East.

“He could almost be Manager of the Year, if you look at it.’’

Over and over, the word “consistent’’ is used by Farrell, DeMarlo Hale, and Jason Varitek to describe Francona. That was the overriding theme of the season. Through all the turmoil and losses, despite the disgruntled players and fans, Francona remained steady in perhaps the most challenging of his seven seasons in Boston.

Consistency, said the manager, “is what we try hard to do, because I think it’s too easy not to be. They don’t need me and the coaches being up and down. It doesn’t work. Too much [stuff] happens.

“But if it’s routine, they know what to expect. That’s what happened in April. In their eyes, it was consistent. In my eyes, I was doing a lot of [staying] after games trying to think, ‘OK, who’s playing? Why?’ So it was hard for me, too. It was a difficult month.’’

No relief from pen
Things improved after April. Ortiz began hitting. Jon Lester began winning. The Sox went 36-20 in May and June (.643), leaving them just a game back of the AL East lead after six consecutive wins against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in June.

It didn’t last. They didn’t have enough pitching.

“Our bullpen probably wasn’t deep enough at times,’’ said Francona.

The middle relief was an utter failure, as possible wins disappeared with a simple call on the bullpen phone. Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, and Hideki Okajima all failed to replicate their performances from last season, and two of them were traded. Add in the worst season of Jonathan Papelbon’s career (eight blown saves, 4.02 ERA) and a lot of leads vanished. Despite the emergence of Daniel Bard, close games slipped away.

“Probably the biggest area of flux was the middle relief,’’ Farrell said. “Guys that had performed well for us for long stretches of time, that’s where you always look back and say, ‘OK, what could have been done differently? How could we have addressed certain situations differently?’

“We had 13 walkoff losses on the road. That is a reflection on the depth of the bullpen. That’s not to be critical of any one individual, that’s to look at an area. In that comes starters going deeper, bullpen isn’t as taxed.

“But when you have to win on the road and you have to win in this division, it comes down to pitching, and that’s where I feel we fell short.’’

The Sox weren’t able to obtain bullpen help at the trading deadline, though general manager Theo Epstein has said he searched for a top arm. It just didn’t happen, with Kerry Wood, Scott Downs, Brian Fuentes, and Brandon League not coming aboard.

Varitek looked back to one game, a game that seemed to rip out the heart of the team. On Aug. 28, the Red Sox entered the bottom of the eighth with a 2-1 lead over the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla. A victory would have brought the Sox within 3 1/2 games of the division-leading Rays. Instead, B.J. Upton homered in the eighth to tie it and Dan Johnson’s blast in the 10th won it for the home team.

“They hit the home run to win,’’ Varitek said. “There were a lot of those games that swing away, which are outside of personnel. We won a lot of those, too, but we did lose a lot of them. If we could have had the majority fall our way in those, then you sit at a little different spot going into the last three weeks or so.’’

Spotty rotation
The bullpen wasn’t the only culprit. While the offense showed surprising pop — second in the majors in runs — the disappointments seemed to be on the mound. Lester and Clay Buchholz performed well enough to hear their names mentioned as Cy Young Award candidates. But Beckett? John Lackey? Daisuke Matsuzaka? All suffered through injury or poor performance or both.

Beckett was the biggest issue. His 6-6 record and 5.78 ERA, along with two months on the disabled list for lower back pain, helped doom the Sox.

“The injury to Josh and the interruption that took away two months [hurt],’’ Farrell said. “The amount of time missed, that didn’t allow him to get on track coming out of spring training that typically he has done in the past, the years I’ve been with him.’’

Lackey and Matsuzaka also didn’t throw their best. Lackey’s numbers reflected a decrease in effectiveness across the board. After signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal in the offseason, he had a 4.47 ERA, a 1.43 WHIP, and just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, almost a full strikeout per game less than last season.

Matsuzaka had two stints on the DL, and managed a season only slightly better than 2009. Entering last night’s game against the Yankees, he had a 9-6 record and a 4.72 ERA, having thrown 148 2/3 innings. Before his start against the Yankees Sept. 26, Matsuzaka had allowed at least four earned runs in seven consecutive starts, only one of which he won.

Still, even with all the misses, all the time spent on the disabled list, the Sox remained afloat.

As Cameron said, “At some particular point in time we’ve lost Buchholz, Daisuke, we’ve lost Beckett. You do that to any other team, where would you be?’’

Painful finish
“They lost two guys on the right side of their infield [Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis] that are really key parts for their lineup, attitude players. They’ve lost a lot,’’ Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “They lost their center fielder, they lost their left fielder. They’ve had to deal with a lot.’’

Over the course of the season, the Sox lost 19 players to 24 stints on the disabled list, with four players enduring season-ending surgeries. After today’s game, the Sox will have officially missed 1,013 man-games to injury, a staggering number that doesn’t include dozens of games in which players were on the roster but unavailable. And these weren’t bit players, these were some of the most crucial pieces: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Beckett, Buchholz, Matsuzaka, Cameron, Youkilis, Victor Martinez.

“There’s only one thing that went wrong,’’ Cameron said. “Got too many people hurt.’’

Yes. But that’s not all of it. There were still chances, still opportunities.

“The thing you do is, you make sure that guys understand we’re still about winning,’’ Girardi said, of how a team handles injuries. “We’re not going to go through the motions. We still expect to win, we expect to be in the playoffs and win the World Series, and you have to be able to deal with it.’’

From all accounts, the Sox maintained a winning attitude.

“Not losing sight of what our goal is, and that’s to win every night, regardless of if it’s perceived as being shorthanded or not,’’ Farrell said. “The only people that really cared about that were the people in this clubhouse. The people on the outside didn’t give a damn what hardships we were dealing with and we knew that.’’

So they played, just not well enough. They won, just not often enough. And for all the frustration, all the disappointment, there were some rights to go along with all of this season’s wrongs.

“It’s gritty baseball, almost like blue-collar type baseball,’’ Youkilis said. “We battled, we battled all year, and tried to give our fans the best show we possibly could give them. I think we did a pretty good job.

“There were times where it wasn’t that pretty, but we’ve got guys that really care about winning and we’re a winning ball team. We could have easily folded it up when everyone went down, but we didn’t.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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