BALTIMORE — Ten years later, back in Camden Yards, echoes resonated.
Circumstances suggested the Red Sox should not, could not lose to the last-place Orioles on Tuesday night. The Sox had the motivation of a potential playoff berth, the presence of Chris Sale, and an opponent they’d dominated for most of the year.
None of that mattered. Sale pitched well through five innings but faltered in the sixth, the Red Sox’ defense committed a pair of errors and failed to convert makable plays, and the lineup ended the game with 12 straight outs recorded in just 34 pitches in a 4-2 loss to the Orioles.
The night offered a reminder of a dark moment in franchise history in the same venue on Sept. 28, 2011 — exactly 10 years earlier.
“The Curse,” recalled former Orioles manager Buck Showalter by phone, “of the Andino.”
On Sept. 28, 2011, the Sox entered the final day of the regular season tied with the Rays in the wild-card race — in the final season that featured just one wild-card berth for each league. The team had experienced a September freefall that had taken it from a postseason lock to a scramble.
Nonetheless, the Sox arrived at the season-ending three-game series against the last-place Orioles with a one-game lead over the Rays. A sweep would ensure a playoff spot. The Orioles didn’t cooperate.
“The worst thing you can say — you won’t say it in the clubhouse — is a thought that well, ‘They should sweep them,’ ” Showalter said. “You have to earn every game during a baseball season. Winning a major league baseball game is hard.”
Baltimore demonstrated as much in winning the series opener, allowing the Rays to tie the Sox in the standings. The Red Sox bounced back to win the second game, setting up arguably the most chaotic day in big league history.
In the National league, Atlanta — deep into its own September collapse — was tied with the Cardinals for the wild-card spot, setting up four meaningful games for the final day of the regular season — yet the significance of those contests wasn’t limited to the standings.
In the clubhouse and on the field, questions about Sox manager Terry Francona’s job security swirled leading up to the season finale. The strange energy extended to the stands, where a crowd of nearly 30,000 seemed almost evenly split between Red Sox and Orioles fans — a dynamic Showalter compared to an Army-Navy football game.
The Sox took a 1-0 lead, fell behind 2-1, then scratched out single runs in the fourth and fifth innings to take a 3-2 lead behind Jon Lester. With the host Rays trailing the Yankees, 7-0, through five innings, the Sox appeared set to advance so long as they could win — but as the game unfolded, it became clear that the Orioles wouldn’t let the game get out of reach.
With teams permitted to carry 40 big leaguers on their September rosters, Baltimore featured a deep pitching staff that Showalter employed aggressively.
“In 2011, we could compete with the Red Sox for three games because we had an almost unlimited roster,” said Showalter. “If they had [the current cap of 28 players in September], we would not have beaten the Red Sox.”
The progression of the taut game in Baltimore was stalled by a rain delay in the seventh inning. During the downpour, the Rays rallied for six runs in the eighth and then — just before play resumed at Camden Yards — hit a game-tying solo homer by Dan Johnson with two outs in the ninth.
“Surreal,” Showalter said.
Still, the Sox were able to hand a one-run lead in the ninth to closer Jonathan Papelbon. The four-time Red Sox All-Star quickly struck out two batters. But back-to-back doubles tied the game before Robert Andino’s sinking, catchable liner to left went uncaught by Carl Crawford as the Orioles walked off with a win.
Moments later, as the Sox filed off the field, Evan Longoria drilled a walkoff homer for the Rays in the 12th inning that propelled Tampa Bay to the wild card. The defeat not only ended the Red Sox season, but marked a reckoning.
“I don’t take any joy in somebody else’s failures or the pain of losing. [But] we’d had our nose bloodied a lot and [were] laughed at while you’re bleeding, so to speak,” said Showalter. “I was there to do what was best for the Baltimore Orioles and if it hurt some feelings along away, well, we had been a doormat there for quite a while. But I still remember the emotion of walking up the runway and knowing that there were gonna be a lot of repercussions from that series and some of it was not fair.”
That game marked the end of the Red Sox tenures of Sox manager Terry Francona (fired), GM Theo Epstein (left for the Cubs), Papelbon, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, J.D. Drew, and others. The loss and subsequent cultural implosion of the Red Sox reverberated throughout the last-place 2012 campaign.
For the Orioles, their strong finish — a 15-13 record in September and that season-ending series win — represented a springboard.
“We needed that propulsion that, yeah, we can compete with these guys and we’re tired of getting rubbed on our face,” said Showalter, noting that the core of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Matt Wieters used that game as a point of departure for a subsequent five-year run that included three playoff appearances. “We gained an identity.”
They did so at the expense of a team that was expected to beat them. Ten years later, if the Red Sox didn’t know it already, they now certainly recognize that with five games remaining, they cannot take the remaining challenge for granted.
“[Motivation] better not be [an issue], because we’ve got two more against [Baltimore] and we need both of them,” said Sale.
“Everybody knows where we’re at. It’s not like we’re hiding from it. Of course they know what’s at stake,” added Sox manager Alex Cora. “Our goal is to win both series — one here, one in Washington — and they know it.”
They also know, as do members of the 2011 Red Sox, that success cannot be taken for granted.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.