They say that 1 is the loneliest number. I think the Red Sox, a single loss (or Yankee win) away from playoff elimination, will agree.
In any event, I've resolved to be relentlessly positive about this year, and horrifyingly optimistic about next. 2010 was a learning experience, a teachable moment. What exactly have we learned for 2011?
1. If serious about making the playoffs, you can't rely on injured players coming back at full strength.
At the trade deadline, the Sox plan was for success was having Martinez, Pedroia and others come back healthy. The big mid-season acquisition was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the former top catching prospect who, unsurprisingly, hasn't gotten much play. Even after the deadline, when our injury woes were still readily apparent, Theo didn't put something together. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, as there didn't seem to be a wealth of deals to make, and they probably would have cost a lot in the way of prospects (not easy when so many are already on our team). Still, it's hard not to think that more should've been done.
2. Papelbon should not be the relief ace in 2011.
A relief ace is the guy you go to in high leverage situations. This is distinct from a closer, who just pitches the 9th/save situations. On our team, the relief ace is/should be Daniel Bard. In critical situations, we've learned that Papelbon is not nearly so dominant as he was before. Last night you can blame the plate umpire, Cuzzi, for some of the horribleness, but what about the 7 blown saves and ERA approaching 4, both career highs. What about Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS? Papelbon increasingly makes every save opportunity an adventure. He's looking less like Mariano Rivera and more like a Joe Borowski or Todd Jones - someone who gets a bunch of saves through grit and stubborness more than talent. Daniel Bard is the real thing, he's what Papelbon was when he came up - electric. So for next year, give Paps the 3-run save against the 7-9 lineup guys, and give Bard the 1-run season-deciding save against the top of the Yankees order.
3. Darnell McDonald, while not living up to initial hype, is a pretty kick-ass guy. Bill Hall, HR total notwithstanding, is not.
In a season where 2/3 outfielders missed most of it, and several replacements also fell to injury, someone who hits above league average and plays decent D makes a difference. OBP is king, and DMac's .342 is great from a guy you expected to warm the bench at Pawtucket. Bill Hall - love the power, hate the lack of discipline. .304 OBP is too little from a guy who gets so much playing time, and even 18 bombs won't excuse that. Who do you think you are - Jason Varitek?
4. Even (especially) a lost season has heroes.
Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard. These guyds have made big impacts on the team, from Papi's resurgent 30-HR, (likely) 100-RBI comeback bid to Clay and Lester dueling for Cy Young consideration. Meanwhile, Dan Bard is a Bard man, and he's gonna get a lot of saves over the course of his career, and Jed Lowrie is looking great and ready to excel next season.
5. Next year will be better.
For millions of Sox fans, the cry of there's always next year felt more like a curse than a panacea. You didn't really. Thankfully, those alive today can actually look forward to each coming season, as our eye-poppingly high ticket prices and dedicated ownership finance competitive squads. Meanwhile, the baseball operations people are among the best in the game, and so is the farm system, which continues to produce exciting players like Jed Lowrie and Ryan Kalish.