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Even with all that's going on, Red Sox's collapse still hurts

A sudden departure from the diamond doesn't drive the Red Sox and their future from our minds.

 

Fall in Maine is a wonderful time: lots of great colors, reliable sunshine and generally mild temperatures. It is a time when, with the exception perhaps of Columbus Day weekend, there are fewer tourists, so it is possible to recapture stretches of coastal Route 1 for the natives.

All good things come to an end, however, and over the past 10 days or so, we have experienced the dark side of fall – bone-chilling cold that reminds us winter is almost here; rain and wind that leave a threadbare look, and the inexorable decline in evening light, soon to be dramatic as we go off daylight-saving time.

This state of affairs seems to have come early this year and has coincided with a series of unfortunate events – interminable wrangling over health care reform; rifts in the Obama administration over Afghanistan policy, and the Red Sox's early exit from the playoffs.

While I am deeply concerned about the former two issues, I am disconsolate about the Sox and the way in which they were beaten by the Los Angeles Angels. We were not just beaten. We were humbled. Who could imagine our All Star reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, giving up three runs with two outs in the ninth inning and a ball and two strikes on the Angels' No. 9 hitter?

Let us turn our attention , then, from pressing national issues for a moment and reflect on the Red Sox's season. There is much that should concern us. Pitching, we are often told, is what wins world championships. On this measure, the Red Sox are in pretty good shape: Jon Lester continues to show he is one of the best talents in the league. Josh Beckett needs to be handled with kid gloves but still has wonderful stuff.

Daisuke Matsuzaka managed to squander most of a season but came back looking stronger and more effective. Clay Buchholz will be a strong No. 4 starter once he hires a better sports psychologist.

Who the fifth starter will be is anyone's guess, but most teams would love to be in Boston's position.

The bullpen should continue to be strong – the addition of Billy Wagner is a plus. Hideki Okajima and Daniel Bard are solid. Hopefully, we have seen the last of Manny Delcarmen. Papelbon is resilient and will learn from that painful last inning of the season.

But Boston has holes: Mike Lowell, much as I love him, is unlikely to return to form with his age and hip problems. Jason Varitek simply has run out of gas. That may be sadly true for David Ortiz as well. J.D. Drew has never fulfilled his potential in right field, and Rocco Baldelli hasn't shown much more than the occasional hint of promise.

On the plus side, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are both real talents. Alex Gonzales could be the man to fill our perennial shortstop problem, and Victor Martinez was a strong late-season addition. Jason Bay had a fine season in left, though his production tailed off late.

Jacoby Ellsbury is a talent in center field and someone the Sox can build around.

All of this highlights the Red Sox's late-season and playoff performance weakness – the lack of timely hitting. All in all, the Sox's pitching held up well. However, the big bats simply were in hiding. The Red Sox's inability to hit good pitching in September and October was almost embarrassing.

Another Victor Martinez-like addition is essential if the Red Sox are to be contenders next year. There is also the issue of chemistry, that elusive element that helps teams get through the long slog of the season and helps energize them at playoff time. Much has been made of the Yankees' addition of the less-heralded Nick Swisher and his positive impact in the clubhouse.

The Sox just didn't seem to have the appropriate chemistry this year. The late-season spark was missing. Perhaps it was because the feisty Pedroia struggled in the late season, and easygoing Big Papi struggled all year. Perhaps adding Victor Martinez and Billy Wagner later in the season without clearly defined roles added to the angst.

Manager Terry Francona and Theo Epstein, the general manager, are surely giving this some thought as they ponder the 2010 season.

Just now, I am not so optimistic about 2010. However, by the time spring training rolls around, I am sure there will be reason for renewed hope. That's one of the glories of Red Sox baseball.