Any baseball team will go through some really awful months throughout the years. Many of those will come in lost seasons like 2014 and 2015 were for the Red Sox, but not the worst. No, the worst months can only come in the years that have some promise. Where all the losses actually mean something beyond just a better draft pick.
You don't need to look too far back to find proof of that. Quick, what's the worst month in recent Red Sox history? It's an easy answer: September 2011. When the Sox went from division favorites and a lock for the playoffs to seeing their October dreams dashed in Game 162. It brought about the end of both the Epstein and Francona eras and left the Sox headed straight into the storm that was Bobby Valentine and 2012.
That was five years ago, but man, it feels like it was just yesterday. Probably because 2016 has started to feel a lot like 2011.
This Red Sox team is phenomenal. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley are three of the best players in the game. Dustin Pedroia is enjoying a renaissance season. David Ortiz is as good at 40 as he has been at any time in his career. They've even finally got a starting rotation! And they just can't win anymore. Not consistently, anyways. They've been a .500 team for the better part of three months now, even after their big run through the first few weeks of July.
The 2011 Red Sox were much the same. Jacoby Ellsbury had an MVP-caliber season. Dustin Pedroia bounced back from a year cut short by injury to enjoy what remains the high water mark in his career (even if it didn't come with an MVP title). Adrain Gonzalez was one of the game's most productive bats, as was David Ortiz, having come all the way back from the 2008 injury that seemed likely to end his career in the early parts of 2009.
Combined with Lester and Beckett, the Sox had all the individual talent in the world. They just couldn't win in September, much as the 2016 Red Sox haven't been able to win in June and now again these last couple weeks.
Now, many will point out that the death of the 2011 Red Sox came on the mound, and that's certainly the case. The rotation in September of 2011 was perhaps worse than the 2016 rotation with Broken Price, Broken Rodriguez, and Even-Year Buchholz. But for all that they struggled on the mound, where the 2011 Red Sox were equally bad in terms of simple timeliness. The best illustration of this is the first three games in their final visit to Toronto. They fell 1-0 in the first, won the second 14-0, and dropped the third 10-11. That's a +12 run differential and a 1-2 record. When Toronto came to town? 18-6 win, 4-5 loss. +11, 1-1.
All told, the Red Sox lost 10 games in that fateful September by two runs or less. Sound familiar? These 2016 Sox have put up eight such losses in their last thirteen games. They have all the talent in the world, but just can't get their results to line up in even a halfway reasonable manner. A team with a -6 run differential should not come out with five more losses than wins over a two-week period. If Hanley's ninth-inning error had come in a different one of their one-run losses, or Price's four-run eighth had come in the start that Hanley error fouled instead of on Tuesday, or if any of a hundred other single instances shifted from one game to another and the Red Sox had some small amount of clustering of their good with their bad, they certainly wouldn't be looking up at the Tigers in the Wild Card race.
The truly frustrating part about this sort of failure is how little there is to actually be done about it. The Red Sox do need to play better. There's no way to sugarcoat a negative run differential in this stretch. But even if they were to flip that -6 to a +6, chances are they'd still be coming in somewhere around 5-8 or 6-7 instead of the best-case 9-4 because, while they've done a remarkable job of spreading out their runs allowed and runs scored (to their detriment), those 12 extra runs would be unlikely to follow the pattern.
Those losses are gone now, which is kind of the theme of this year. "David Price will be better," was the mantra, "but there's no undoing the damage done." They'll find help for the rotation, but only after losing so many games. And so the Red Sox find themselves in August with the same +10 in the wins column as they had in May.
One of the more hilariously tragic elements of the 2011 team was that, had they had their season one year later, they would have cruised into the postseason with the addition of the second wild card spot. That spot is there for these 2016 Red Sox now, but the competition is greater, and the 2016 team has never risen as high as the 2011 team did before they ultimately fell. If this is their September swoon wrought early, they're going to need to get hot like the 2011 team did unless the various other contenders are going to collectively go quietly into that good night and let an 86-win team sneak in. Which, in fairness, is pretty much what happened last year. And the year before that.
Then again, if they proceed to play like this for much longer, they'll be one of the ones fading away to allow that 86-win team in, and not the other way around.