Given it's the last day of 2012, it's time for a little reflection on the Red Sox' season. The short version is that they were disappointing, injured, injured some more, traded away, and then awful enough to slide into a top-10 draft pick. Rather than rehash all of that again in detail, we're going to go about this a bit simpler. Here are -- in my own Personal Opinion -- the five worst losses of the 2012 season. There might have been more important games where the Sox earned an L, but these are the five that, months later, still stick in my mind.
5. April 5 - The First Loss Of The Season: This was crushing for two reasons. For one, the Red Sox had last played baseball in game 162 against the Baltimore Orioles in 2011, when they lost the game, then immediately after, lost their chance for a one-game playoff with the Rays when Evan Longoria bailed them out against the Yankees with a game-winning homer. It would have been a meaningful gesture to Red Sox fans who just wanted to see the team win after a month of that small thing looking like an impossible task. Maybe that's not logical within the confines of 2012, but emotionally, it's where we were as a fan base on April 5, 2012.
And that's why the way the Red Sox lost this game is even worse. Andrew Bailey was injured, so instead of the presumed closer, the Red Sox had Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon kind of splitting duty a bit. Melancon came in to a tie game in the bottom of the ninth in Detroit against the Tigers, and logged a fly ball out against his first batter. Then came two singles in a row, and for some reason, Bobby Valentine immediately put Aceves in the game. Aceves would hit Ramon Santiago with a pitch to load the bases, then give up a bases-loaded single to Austin Jackson to give the Tigers victory.
4. October 3 - The Last Loss Of the Season: This shouldn't have been so bad. After all, it was okay if the Sox lost, since losing would improve their draft standing. But there was enough going on contextually to make this bothersome. The Sox were facing the Yankees in New York, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was in the last start of his contract with Boston, facing off against Hiroki Kuroda, whom the Red Sox failed to sign before the season began. Kuroda was predictably great, and Dice-K terrible. Matsuzaka allowed five runs in 2-1/3 innings, giving up a pair of homers and jumping his ERA for the season to 8.28. The Red Sox would fall, and hard, 14-2. The season was over, but they couldn't just let it end with a standard loss. It had to be a beat down featuring Dice-K doing Dice-K things, because 2012 Red Sox.
3. June 3 - Daniel Bard's Final Start: Bard had shown flashes of an ability to start, and well, but had also seen plenty of issues with efficiency and consistency. It had been a delicate balancing game the season's first two months, one that had begun to lean too heavily in the wrong direction as walks piled up and strikeouts stopped coming. June 3 smashed any remaining dreams left for Bard as a starter, and resulted in his being demoted to Pawtucket. First to attempt to start at a level where his growing pains wouldn't hurt the Red Sox' record, and then in order to come back as a working reliever, with the starting experiment behind him.
Bard faced 13 batters in 1-2/3 innings against the Blue Jays, allowing five runs, a home run, six walks, and just two strikeouts. Franklin Morales, who would end up replacing Bard in the rotation for a spell, threw 4-1/3 scoreless frames after Bard's exit, but it was too little, too late, and certainly wouldn't have made up for Bard's complete implosion as a starter even if Boston had pulled out the W.
2. August 4, Extra-Innings Twins Loss: Boston entered the game at 53-54, struggling to get back to .500 and keep their hopes alive in the playoff race. They weren't in a good place, but the team was starting to come together as healthy, and if they could just put together a win streak... well, you know how hope is. This game featured excitement aplenty, and much of it in Boston's favor. Clay Buchholz was great, allowing one run in seven innings. Boston even came from behind with a pinch-hit home run from an unlikely source. But, like with almost everything else in 2012, it wasn't enough.
Andrew Miller pitched in the eighth, and while he was a bit shaky, Valentine's inconsistent bullpen usage didn't help matters. Miller allowed a walk, then an infield single, then a walk, resulting in Aceves being called in to the game. To his credit, he allowed just one run to score on a sacrifice fly, and ended the threat otherwise, allowing the Red Sox to leave that half of the inning with the score tied. Pedro Ciriaco then pinch-hit for Ryan Kalish to lead off the inning, and promptly went deep to put Boston ahead. This would be followed by a Dustin Pedroia hit-by-pitch, a stolen base, and then Cody Ross singling him home to put the Sox up 4-2.
Here is where things broke down, though. Aceves had already shown an inability in 2012 to pitch well when used often, in part because of how he pitched in the closer role. Rather than throw in the low-90s and attempt to force weak contact, as he had in the past, Aceves reared back and tried to throw fireballs, and it caused his command to falter, homers to fly, and the quickening of fatigue. Now, in his second inning of work, you could almost predict what was going to happen. He struck out the first batter, but allowed a double to the second. He then gave up a single to Jamey Carroll, cutting the lead to 4-3. While he recorded an out on a fly ball to Denard Span, it was to deep right, and that was followed by a single up the middle to Ben Revere.
In summary: Aceves had pitched 1-2/3 innings, faced eight batters, and had scuffled in his second inning of work. Joe Mauer, who had entered the day hitting .321/.417/.436, was now up to bat as the ninth hitter Aceves would face. A wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position, and Mauer worked the count to 3-2 before hitting a three-run homer that would be the difference.
It was the sixth blown save of the season for Aceves, and his seventh loss. His ERA was now 4.37, and it took 34 pitches and four runs plated before Valentine had the same kind of urgency to remove him from the game as he did Miller an inning prior. It put the Red Sox two games under .500, and was just soul-crushing in so many ways that other losses in August and September couldn't even manage, because it was something you could just see happening, as it happened, without the benefit of hindsight. How come Valentine couldn't see it?
1. May 6 - Chris Davis vs. Darnell McDonald: This game went 17 innings. Clay Buchholz was still in his early season, change-up-less funk, so he lasted all of 3-2/3 innings. This meant that Andrew Miller, Matt Albers, Vicente Padilla, Alfredo Aceves, Franklin Morales, Rich Hill, and Scott Atchison would combine for 12-2/3 innings of relief, in the last game of a series in which Boston relievers would throw 26 frames total. The pen was tired, the game ongoing, and both clubs ran out of relievers. That's how you end up with Darnell McDonald on the mound for Boston, and Chris Davis pitching for the Orioles.
McDonald can't be faulted for anything. He was the position player with the closest thing resembling a repertoire, and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as the last line of defense for a bullpen that had been thoroughly breached. McDonald would allow three runs in his inning of work, giving up two hits, a homer, and two walks in his short time on the mound. Davis, on the other hand, worked two frames, kept the Sox from scoring, and even struck out Adrian Gonzalez on a wicked -- and surprising -- change-up. This game basically summed up the seasons of these two clubs. Everything the Orioles did, no matter how ridiculous, worked out. The Sox, however, couldn't do anything right in the end, no matter how close they might have been at times. In a season with 93 losses, this early season affair stands out.