Season ends early for Red Sox

CHICAGO -- Maybe the Boston Red Sox should have known back in March, when Aaron (Bleeping) Boone of all people, predicted the Sox could go wire to wire to win the American League East.

Boone had long since shed pinstripes for an ESPN microphone, but still, the karmic implications of a Boston heartbreaker offering such a rosy forecast should have put everyone on alert.

The numbers crunchers were just as optimistic, Baseball Prospectus pointing to its PECOTA projections as showing the Sox would win 94 games and the division. And the pen-and-laptop set had more than its share of fortune tellers -- present company included -- opining that the Sox would be playing meaningful games in October.

They were all wrong, ex-Yankee and stats geeks and dot-commers alike, reality setting in with finality Tuesday night, when the Yankees and Rays both won, officially eliminating the Red Sox from contention with five games to play.

The outcome here Tuesday night was rendered inconsequential in the sixth inning, when news of the New York Yankees' 6-1 win in Toronto reached U.S. Cellular Field; the Tampa Bay Rays' 5-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles in Tropicana Field already had been posted.

"It's only happened [four] times before," said catcher Jason Varitek, counting the times the Sox have missed the playoffs since his rookie season, 1998.

"The times I've been hurt."

In 2000, Varitek had wrist surgery after the season. In 2001, he fractured his elbow and had surgery. In 2006, he tore cartilage in his knee and had surgery. The Sox missed the playoffs in all of those seasons, as well as 2002, when he actually remained relatively intact.

This year, his first full season as a backup, Varitek fractured his foot.

"I've been lucky," he said of his seven trips to the postseason, which includes two World Series titles.

For Varitek, the early exit could be fraught with an added sense of loss. There is considerable uncertainty whether the Sox will ask their 38-year-old captain to return.

"We've got five more games," he said.

His last five in a Sox uniform?

"Could be," he said matter-of-factly. The Sox have not approached him about coming back, he said.

"They wouldn't," he said. "They never have."

The only goal of any consequence left for the Sox is preventing the Yankees from celebrating a division title this weekend on Yawkey Way. But for the first time since 2006, Fenway Park will be dark when the postseason tournament begins.

"Actually I hadn't given it any thought, paying attention to what we were doing," said manager Terry Francona, who made six pitching changes and used two pinch hitters in the last three innings, his moves coming up short when Chicago rookie Dayan Viciedo hit a pinch single off Sox pitcher Matt Fox to win it 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "I guess when the season is over, I know there's time to reflect on what happened and what-ifs, and I guess, disappointment. No fun going home before you want to, regardless of what's happened. I think the world of those guys in the clubhouse, the effort, things like that, but I want to keep playing."

So does David Ortiz, who hit his 32nd home run in the sixth off Chicago starter Edwin Jackson. J.D. Drew took Jackson deep in the second inning, his 21st.

"My first year here not going to the playoffs [2006], you feel like you have so much time, watching the games on TV, it feels totally weird," Ortiz said. "I'm pretty sure this year is going to feel the same way."

There were other harbingers this spring, unrecognized as such at the time, that foreshadowed Boston's fate in 2010.

On the eve of spring training, Daisuke Matsuzaka hurt his back/shoulder and missed a month. Young infielder Jed Lowrie made the long bus ride to Port St. Lucie then couldn't play, felled by a case of mononucleosis that would sideline him for months. And a minor-leaguer of great promise, Ryan Westmoreland, underwent life-threatening brain surgery.

Health was a dominant storyline for the Sox all season, just as it would be in the last two months of 2006, when a crippling array of injuries sandwiched around a five-game sweep by the Yanks in Fenway, sucked the life out of another Boston team. These Sox will end the season with more than 1,000 days lost on the disabled list, a toll that includes six starters from Opening Day and nine present or former All-Stars. That includes Josh Beckett, who would miss close to a dozen starts and have just 6 wins in the season's final days. That's not an excuse, that's a fact.

But aside from the injuries, maybe we should have known something in the last days of spring training, when Francona was still conducting auditions in the bullpen, the Sox inviting Scot Schoeneweis and recycling Alan Embree while shuffling through the likes of Boof Bonser and Joe Nelson in search of some reliable arms. The bullpen would remain problematic all season, signified by the late-summer trades of the once-dependable Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen.

In the span of one week in April, the Sox lost two-thirds of their starting outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. By month's end, Francona was pinch-hitting for Ortiz, and Theo Epstein, after Boston was swept in Baltimore, was ripping his team for "bad baseball -- unintelligent, undisciplined, uninspired baseball."

The Red Sox were still a sub-.500 team after Jonathan Papelbon, in the first of what would become a troubling series of ninth-inning meltdowns, took a beating at the hands of the Yankees. But soon, the team righted itself, adhering not to the run-prevention model prescribed by Epstein in the offseason, but by its tried-and-true formula of outscoring everyone else.

On the first day of summer, June 21, an off-day, the Sox headed out west for an interleague swing to Denver and San Francisco a half-game out of first place, 15 games over .500. Papelbon gave up a walk-off home run to Jason Giambi of the Rockies, and in the span of three days in San Francisco, Dustin Pedroia fractured his foot, Clay Buchholz strained a hamstring and Victor Martinez fractured his thumb.

A few days later, Varitek broke his foot, and when, in the first days of August, Kevin Youkilis tore a muscle in his hand that attached to his thumb, the limits of Sox resilience were reached.

The subs and the kids tried admirably. Darnell McDonald became the first player since 1920 to deliver a winning hit in his Sox debut. Daniel Nava hit the first pitch he saw for a grand slam. Rookie Ryan Kalish made highlight-reel catches in center field. Bill Hall hit more home runs than any Sox part-timer in history.

"It's a good sign," Ortiz said. "We've got a lot of guys with heart here and the ability to play the game. The talented kids opened my eyes this year."

Despite Cy Young-caliber performances from Jon Lester and Buchholz, MVP-like numbers from Adrian Beltre and a .300 season from Martinez, the Sox were 10 games out by Labor Day.

The storm windows, as Mike Barnicle would say, will go up early this year.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.