By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Untimely injuries, ineffective pitching and the failure of big-name players to perform when it mattered most are to blame for the epic collapse that kept the Boston Red Sox out of the postseason.
The Red Sox and Atlanta Braves were each within striking distance of the postseason during the ninth inning on the final night of Major League Baseball's 162-game regular season schedule on Wednesday, but failed to close the deal en route to the worst collapses in the annals of September swoons.
Boston earned the dubious distinction of most awful final-month crash, a black mark of misery compounded by their status as preseason favorites after an off-season spending spree gave them a $161 million payroll that was third highest in the major leagues.
Losers of 20 of their last 27 games, the Red Sox came apart from a combination of injuries, a depleted starting rotation and shoddy execution as the mounting pressure of failure wore on the boys from Beantown, who fell in their final game to the last-placed Baltimore Orioles.
"We'll go down in history as one of the worst collapses in history, so it definitely doesn't feel good to be part of that," said left fielder Carl Crawford, who failed to snag Baltimore's game-ending hit after a desperate, sliding stab at Robert Andino's sinking liner.
The Braves, who held an 8-1/2 game lead in the first week of September, crashed first to the Philadelphia Phillies in 13 innings and would have gone down as the biggest flameout ever, but Boston outdid them with a ninth-inning reversal that made them the first team to squander a nine-game September lead.
Crawford's near miss in the outfield symbolized the futility of the 2011 Red Sox season.
The fleet-footed outfielder was signed to a seven-year, $142 million free agent deal, and along with a trade for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Boston looked set to batter their opposition.
Crawford, however, failed to deliver up to expectations, his stats line of a .255 batting average, 11 home runs and 56 runs batted in made him a Boston bust.
Adding to the sting of their dismal finish was being overtaken by the financially-challenged Tampa Bay Rays, who lost Crawford among a host of other players from their 2010 roster due to the economics of a small market club whose $41 million 2011 payroll was second lowest in the major leagues.
Injuries chipped away at Boston's vaunted roster, with third baseman Kevin Youkilis sorely missed down the stretch, but it was the decimation of their pitching staff that hurt most.
The Red Sox lost Daisuke Matsuzaka in early June to elbow surgery, and even more damaging finished the year without Clay Buchholz, whose season ended in late June due to a back injury. Buchholz, 17-7 in 2010, was 6-3 before he was sidelined.
Boston soldiered on but once September hit, even top of the rotation stalwarts Josh Beckett and Jon Lester faltered.
The other pieces of the rotation failed miserably.
Last year's free-agent acquisition John Lackey posted a mind-numbing earned run average of 6.41, while aged knuckleballer Tim Wakefield pitched to a 5.12 ERA. Young starters called up from the minors failed to stop the slide.
"We're going to have to live with that one," Red Sox manager Terry Francona lamented after the last loss. "We needed to take care of business today and we didn't."
(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)