NEW YORK — The Red Sox season ended on Sept. 29 when Mookie Betts kept on running and scored from first base on a single to right field in the bottom of the ninth inning against the inept Baltimore Orioles.
But for all practical purposes, the season ended late in the afternoon on July 31 when the Sox decided not to make any trades to improve their worn-down pitching staff before the deadline hit.
The Sox were 59-49 at the time, nine games out of first place but only 2½ games behind the Athletics in the American League wild-card race with 54 games to play.
Sox manager Alex Cora said in the days leading up to the deadline that he thought there would be additions. The players felt the same way.
But it didn’t happen.
“The club here needs to play better on a consistent basis. That’s the way I look at it,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said at the time.
As a rallying cry, it wasn’t exactly Winston Churchill. The Sox reacted by losing the game that night and the five games that followed. Dombrowski was fired in September and the Sox finished a pedestrian 84-78.
At the same time the Sox were essentially giving up on their season, the Washington Nationals acquired three relievers on July 31: lefthander Roenis Elias and righthander Hunter Strickland from Seattle and righthander Daniel Hudson from Toronto.
The Nationals were 57-50 a day before the deadline, 5½ games out of first place in the National League East but leading the wild-card race by half a game.
Nobody thought at the time that the Nationals had changed their team dramatically, if much at all.
Elias was a borderline major leaguer and Strickland had been injured all season. Hudson was pitching well for the Blue Jays, but they were his fourth team in four years.
The cost in terms of payroll and prospects wasn’t significant. But the Nationals added three arms to a bullpen that needed help.
Elias quickly got injured and ended pitching in only four games for Washington. He didn’t work out.
But Strickland, despite a few rocky outings, contributed to 15 victories. He was particularly good in August as the Nationals went 19-7 and took hold of a playoff spot.
Hudson was the real difference maker. He had a 1.44 earned run average in 24 games and picked up six saves. His presence allowed the Nationals to give overworked Sean Doolittle a 14-day stretch on the disabled list to heal up and prepare for the postseason.
Doolittle has had a 2.35 ERA since coming back, counting the playoffs.
With Hudson as the closer and Doolittle setting him up, the Nationals beat Milwaukee in the wild-card game, upset the Dodgers in the Division Series, and swept the Cardinals in the League Championship Series to reach the World Series for the first time.
Hudson has pitched 5⅔ scoreless innings in six postseason games and been a reliable closer. The scouts Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sent out before the deadline got it right with him.
The Sox were considering Hudson at the time but didn’t make a move. The Nationals got him for Kyle Johnson, a Single A righthander who was 9-9 with a 4.03 ERA.
As similar as their records were at the trade deadline, the Sox and Nationals were in different situations.
The Sox won the World Series in 2018 and the Nationals missed the playoffs. The Nationals also are owned by 94-year-old Ted Lerner, who cared much more about a World Series at this stage of his life than some prospect in the Carolina League.
Rizzo also knew that a rotation headed by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin would be dangerous in the postseason.
Still, it was hard not to watch the Nationals celebrate on Tuesday night and not wonder if the Red Sox would have benefited from a more proactive approach at the deadline. They treated an opportunity with indifference.
David Price and Chris Sale ended up on the injured list, so maybe the Sox wouldn’t have done much regardless.
But we’ll never really know how it would have played out. The Sox wasted an offense that scored the fourth-most runs in the majors.
The Nationals had their flaws, too. But Rizzo found a way to improve his team just enough that it made a difference. Now they’re in the World Series.
There’s something to be said for taking a chance.