BALTIMORE – The clock above the center-field scoreboard at Camden Yards said it was just after midnight, which meant it was the 2,904th day since Aaron "Bleeping" Boone and the last moment in which the Boston Red Sox did something for which the Red Sox were once known. And with one last Jonathan Papelbon(notes) pitch and a sinking line drive from Robert "Bleeping" Andino, there was 1978 and 2003 and all the other great Boston collapses that came before the eight-year era when the Red Sox seemed to do everything right.
They had just enough time to walk into their clubhouse, look up at the giant flat-screen television mounted above the lockers of Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) and Kevin Youkilis(notes) and see Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria(notes) strike the home run that would complete their tailspin from the playoffs.
David Ortiz during the rain delay.
The Red Sox completed the worst September collapse in history, losing their nine-game lead, to miss the playoffs in the season's final game.
They earned it with wretched September pitching. They earned it with repeated failures to drive runners home from second base. They earned it with errors, with baserunning mistakes and anything else that could befall a team that was sailing to the playoffs until suddenly it wasn't.
[Related: Greatest collapses in MLB history]
You could spend a winter deciphering the many ways Boston managed to become the Boston of old again. The Red Sox will have a winter to do that. And the shock from Wednesday's 4-3 defeat may well lead to changes that will render the team unrecognizable from the one that has done so much right since those few days in 2004 when they came back from three games down to beat the Yankees on their way to winning the World Series for the first time since 1918. Gone may be manager Terry Francona. Gone might be Ortiz. Gone could be catcher Jason Varitek(notes), who held them together for so long. Gone too could be Tim Wakefield(notes), who endured year after year by the magic of a pitch that defied gravity.
Questions might even be raised about Theo Epstein, the general manager who put together all the winning and took the Red Sox from a regional heartbreaker to the hot new national thing with movies and celebrities and expensive stadium suites.
In one September they became the Red Sox again and Ortiz stood in front of his locker, one foot on a folding chair before him, wearing his sliding shorts and a sleeveless Red Sox T-shirt and said over and over: "It's horrible. It's horrible."
Then he added this about the Rays who were celebrating the most unlikely playoff berth, having made up nine games on Boston since the beginning of September: "They deserved to win."
No one looked ready to disagree.
"Dude we were nine games up and then we lost, what can be worse than that?" Ortiz said.
He looked down and frowned. There was nothing more to say.
Of course it never should have come to this last game. It should never have come to the Red Sox on the final night of the season trying to scrape out runs against the dreadful Baltimore Orioles in hopes of finally winning a playoff spot that had long been ceded to them. But since they found themselves in this position, it was fitting that Wednesday's loss was a microcosm of the entire failed month. They had a starting pitcher, Jon Lester(notes), struggle to get through six innings. They had bad luck in the form of a thunderstorm and one-hour, 26-minute rain delay in the seventh. They failed in the seventh, eighth and ninth to bring home the runs that probably would have put the game away. And then they had an all-out implosion, this time in the form of Papelbon, who got two strikeouts to start the ninth then gave up three straight hits to lose the game.
Afterward, Papelbon talked about the doubles and said he put pitches in places he didn't want to.
Carl Crawford(notes), the $142 million free-agent outfielder who was supposed to be one of the great signings of the offseason but who turned out to be something of a bust, described the final hit that dropped either into or underneath his glove as he sprawled across the Camden Yards grass.
[Related: Crawford's slide falls short for Red Sox]
Other players talked about sitting in the clubhouse during the rain delay watching as the Rays came back from the impossible deficit.
"We knew they weren't out of it," Crawford said of the Rays. "They've got the kind of team that will come back."
The Red Sox, old and thin in pitching, suddenly don't look like the resourceful team of the last several years. Perhaps it was a really bad month, but really bad Septembers often lead to overhauls. And maybe it's time for that to happen in Boston.
That will be for another day. On Wednesday, with the latest Red Sox collapse complete and Francona walking in the unfamiliar shoes of Don Zimmer and Grady Little, the manager stood in the busy corridor outside the clubhouse and tried to explain what had just happened. He spoke softly. "I don't know how to evaluate when you go home before you're ready," he said.
The rest of his words were drowned out by the work of Red Sox clubhouse attendants who were loading bags of the team's bats onto a cart that would be rolled to the bus and on home for the winter. The bats will be silent for months. But they made one final sound as Francona tried to speak.
Kind of like the Red Sox in September, when the new era became just like the old.