Bruce Chen has retired, ending a 17-year MLB career spanning both leagues, 11 teams, and 1,532 innings. Chen was never a great pitcher, but he was average for a long time, and that has real value, even if it's not sexy. He pitched for the Red Sox in 2003, throwing 12 bad May innings after Boston selected him off waivers from the Astros, but he was almost on the Red Sox a second, more important time. When the Sox thought they might need a starter for game 163 in 2011, it was Bruce Chen whom Boston tried to acquire to pitch it.
It might sound ridiculous to pin the hopes for the season on someone as average as Chen -- especially since the Royals could extract real value from the Red Sox knowing how badly they needed him -- but that was the case at the end of a brutal September -- one that would inevitably see the Red Sox win just seven games against 20 losses en route to missing the playoffs after leading the AL East to begin the month. Chen wasn't anything special, but he had cleared waivers and owned a 3.98 ERA over 24 starts and 147 innings that season, and the Red Sox probably would have been interested even if only the first part were true.
Opponents batted .270/.360/.444 against Red Sox pitching in September, with the staff producing a 5.84 ERA for the month. The rotation's ERA in that stretch was 7.08, with much of the relievers' problems coming from having to work so hard to make up the difference: by the end of September's 27 games, Boston's starters had thrown 128-1/3 innings, while the bullpen picked up the other 115-1/3. The next-highest total for the relievers for any month in 2011 was 94, but with Clay Buchholz out for the year, John Lackey's elbow finally giving out, Tim Wakefield weeks from what seemed an overdue retirement, Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller showing they weren't big-league starters, and Erik Bedard making just three starts in the month due to injuries, all of the slack went the bullpen's way, and they could only pick up so much.
Chen making his final start of 2011, and not for the Red Sox. (Photo credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The final game of 2011 featured Jon Lester on the mound with the Red Sox able to force a 163rd game so long as they won -- the Rays and Sox entered the day tied, so while Boston didn't entirely control their own destiny, a W would give them the chance to. Lester pitched well in one of the better starts from any Red Sox pitcher that month, going six innings while allowing two runs, and then Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard locked down the seventh and eighth, bringing Jonathan Papelbon in to save the game. Papelbon would blow the save, the Sox would lose the game, and their season ended moments later when the Rays defeated the Yankees and advanced to the postseason.
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Bruce Chen made his 25th start of the season that same night, because the Red Sox had not been able to agree to a deal with the Royals. His 2011 finished on a much higher note than Boston's with an eight-inning shutout against the Twins that lowered his ERA to 3.77 on the year. It was the second eight-inning stint in a row for Chen, and his third that month, and it closed out a strong September in which he produced a 3.32 ERA and held opponents to a 634 OPS. None of that matters to Boston because they couldn't pull off a trade and didn't force a game 163 anyway, but it does show you why the Sox were at least willing to discuss snagging him for a one-time only role as season savior.
Things eventually worked out for the best. The 2011 Sox could have made the playoffs in a universe where they successfully acquired Chen and Papelbon managed to close out the Orioles in game 162, but they would not have had him for the postseason. Everything would have essentially been up to the lineup scoring enough runs that Jon Lester and Josh Beckett didn't have to do everything themselves, and the playoffs are hard enough to succeed in when you don't back into them after a historically awful month. Any chance at success was hypothetical, and rendered pointless when the failure of 2011 bled over into 2012, and that subsequently allowed general manager Ben Cherington to reform the team Theo Epstein left him as he wished.
That team, of course, would win the 2013 World Series, and the championship you know was won beats the hell out of the hypothetical one. Even if that hypothetical one featured the triumphant return of Bruce Chen to a place he had barely known.