A hurt for the ages

BALTIMORE -- Jonathan Papelbon's eyes were not on the clubhouse TV. They were staring, unseeing, into his locker.

The sound told the Boston Red Sox closer what had transpired a thousand miles away. And the fury.

"I heard people, you know, getting ticked off," he said, "so I figured something had happened."

Manager Terry Francona said he doesn't even remember ("I honestly don't know'') how he learned that Evan Longoria hit the home run in Tropicana Field that brought a shocking end to the Red Sox's season at 12:05 a.m. Thursday, just 3½ minutes after Robert Andino had canceled all pending Red Sox travel plans except the one trip they didn't want to make.

"Every time you lose, it hurts,'' Francona said, backed up against the wall in the basement corridor of Camden Yards after the Red Sox had fallen, 4-3, to the Baltimore Orioles, then moments later had their season abruptly terminated by the Tampa Bay Rays' 8-7 win over the New York Yankees in 12 innings. "Every time you go home before you're ready, it hurts. As tough as it has been this last month, we weren't ready to go home. We want to go home when [we] dictate, not when someone makes you. It's extremely difficult."

The Red Sox took a one-run lead into the ninth inning -- they were 77-0 in games in which they had led after eight innings -- and lost. The final act of submission was performed by left fielder Carl Crawford, who had arrived heralded as the game-changer but until further notice will be remembered as a heartbreaker, unable to make the type of sliding catch that had been the norm for him in his previous incarnation as a (hold the mayo and the irony) Tampa Bay Ray.

"I thought that he originally caught it,'' Papelbon said. "The next thing I know, I see the white ball on the ground. That's all she wrote."

The Rays were down, 7-0, entering the eighth, the kind of advantage the Yankees had blown only twice before in their history. The Rays scored six in the eighth, a comeback that Sox players watched in stunned fashion during an 86-minute rain delay. Then the Rays tied it one strike away from defeat in the ninth on a pinch-hit home run by Dan Johnson, just minutes before play was resumed in Baltimore in the home half of the seventh, perhaps the most momentous seventh-inning stretch in the annals of the game.

Johnson's home run struck the right-field foul pole. Longoria, whose three-run home run in the eighth had given the Rays hope, brought them unbridled joy with a 315-foot drive that landed just inside the left-field foul pole, a dagger thrust to the hearts of the Sox and their fans.

"I don't even know how to explain it -- this may have been the worst situation I've ever been in,'' said David Ortiz, who sat, face in his hands for long minutes, before reflecting on what might have been his last moments in a Red Sox uniform, with free agency looming.

"I don't care about that right now,'' he said. "My life and career are all set. That's the last thing I worry about. My goal was trying to win games, go to the playoffs, take things to the next level. We have a lot of fans that were counting on us and we just left them behind, you know what I'm saying? Depression is going be in our heads for a while."

The Rays, the team that had no business even thinking about the playoffs after being nine games behind the Red Sox on Sept. 2 -- a head start on October no team had ever relinquished before -- is headed to Arlington, Texas, to play the defending champion Texas Rangers on Friday afternoon in the division playoffs.

The Red Sox? After missing the playoffs for the second straight season, and this time in historic fashion, their destination was back into the recesses of dark memories that two World Series titles in four years were supposed to have erased forever. It took mere moments for a quick-thinking tweeter to dub this "The Curse of Andino.''

"This is one for the ages, isn't it?'' said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "We can't sugarcoat this. We did it to ourselves. We put ourselves in a position for a crazy night like this to end our season.

"It shouldn't have been this way. We were 7-20 in September. If we go 9-18, we're where we want to be. Nine and 18, that's winning a third of your games. The worst teams in baseball win a third of their games. No excuse. We did this to ourselves.''

The Sox were one out away from extending their season for at least one more day, nobody on base, when Papelbon gave up a double to Chris Davis, then a game-tying double to Nolan Reimold, and then encountered Andino, who had beaten him just a week earlier with a bases-loaded double.

This time, he turned on a Papelbon fastball and launched it into left field. The ball sank rapidly and, as Crawford went into a slide, glanced off his glove.

"It's very disappointing because we had high expectations,'' said Crawford, who never came close to approaching those held for him. "We didn't live up to them.''

The Orioles, the last-place Orioles, carried on like a team that had champagne stashed in a clubhouse equipment room, with their manager, Buck Showalter, relishing a moment that back in spring he had described as one that drives him, beating the Red Sox.

"We leaned on him for so much,'' Francona said of Papelbon, who authored 31 saves, including 25 in a row at one point, but blew two in the last eight days that might wind up as the coda of his career with the Sox, as he, too, heads into free agency. "We didn't extend the lead. You make a mistake, it can cost you. He's been there for us so many times, I'll give the ball to him again. It just didn't work."

The Sox were left to contemplate the effect of a month's worth of individual failures -- Papelbon giving it up, Crawford unable to make a catch, Marco Scutaro inexplicably coming to a stop in the basepaths in the eighth inning, a hesitation that cost the Sox a run when he was cut down at the plate instead of scoring on Crawford's double -- and how collectively they added up to a collapse of mind-numbing proportions. The high hopes engendered by four months as arguably the best team in baseball, certainly in the American League, wound up in the dustbin of history.

"It seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong for us did,'' said Daniel Bard, whose four losses in September scraped much of the gilt off a previously splendid season.

"Baseball is a funny game. A lot of weird things happened that don't usually happen this much against one team. Usually it balances itself out. It just seemed like we didn't play nearly as bad baseball as our record indicates this month. We didn't play good baseball, but we didn't play nearly as bad as our record.

"It seemed like every blown call, whatever, went against us. I'm not making excuses. Personally, I don't feel I threw the ball that poorly this month, but the results were terrible, and a big reason why we're not going to the playoffs.

"You could point a finger at every guy in this locker room -- maybe not Jacoby [Ellsbury], he pretty much did everything he could -- but every guy in this locker room could have won one more game for us. I could have won a few more, I know that for a fact. It's a team game, and we had a lot of stuff go wrong for whatever reason."

And so they go home -- not as the winners they had envisioned, but as losers who understand that change will inevitably follow.

"We can't deny this month happened,'' Epstein said. "Just because it was preceded by four months of being the best team in baseball doesn't mean September didn't happen.

"We'll take a very close look at everything that's not right, that we have to fix," Epstein added. "That includes the whole organization. If there's any silver lining, you can't look the other way. If there's anything that isn't exactly the way you want it, you have to address it. It's going to be difficult, but it's something we have to do."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.