|Carl Crawford has gone from prized free-agent signing to a symbol of what went wrong. (Getty Images)|
BALTIMORE -- It's not one night. It's one month.
It's not three consecutive two-out hits off Jonathan Papelbon, or one Evan Longoria home run that will live forever for the Rays.
It's 28 days that might take the Red Sox 28 years to forget.
How did it happen? Why did it happen?
Did it really happen?
Yes, amazingly, incredibly, it did. Yes, amazingly, incredibly, a nine-game lead disappeared, and New England's baseball offseason appeared.
The months that follow will be filled with questions that might not have answers. There are jobs that can't feel secure.
After this, anything seems possible.
It's the last month that seems impossible.
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A full month, and that's what makes this so bad. A full month, and the Red Sox could so easily have saved it.
They could have gone 8-19, and still been playing Thursday. They could have gone 9-18, and the Rays would be going home after a valiant effort.
That's what makes this so bad. That's what made this so painful, so much worse for the Red Sox than 1978 or 2003 or so many other painful years.
This one didn't require a Bucky Dent or an Aaron Boone.
This one, the Red Sox did to themselves.
And that's why this one is so much worse.
"Not even close," said David Ortiz, who was there in '03. "Not even close. You walk into September nine games ahead. How can it happen?
"This is worse."
This is as bad as it gets, because there's not one moment and not one villain.
There's an entire group that spent four months masquerading as the best team in baseball, or one agonizing month masquerading as perhaps the worst.
The final 4-3 loss to the Orioles, followed quickly by the Longoria home run that put an end to the season but not to the misery, can be dissected for a few minutes, or a few days.
You can ask why Marco Scutaro stopped between second and third, when he could have scored an add-on run in the eighth inning. You can ask what has happened to Carl Crawford's defense, and whether he should have been able to catch Robert Andino's game-ending base hit.
It matters, and it doesn't.
What happened in those few incredible minutes late Wednesday night were shocking, and they weren't. This isn't 2003, where an otherwise fine season disappeared in two nights.
This one started downhill four weeks back, and the Red Sox never came close to really stopping the slide.
"The way we were playing this month, that's not a playoff team," Ortiz said.
The way they were playing for four months before September, the Red Sox were maybe the best team in the game. The Phillies could have argued that point, but no one else could.
That's what makes this collapse unique. That's what makes it uniquely painful.
"Bad start, 81-42, and then September happened," general manager Theo Epstein said, in a summary that explained everything and nothing.
Theo had no answers, other than to say the Red Sox will look over everything they do in an attempt to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
Yes, he's responsible for part of this, for his failure to build enough pitching depth to sustain a couple of significant injuries. He's responsible for free-agent decisions that have gone wrong, from Crawford to John Lackey.
In recent days, Epstein has been heard questioning some of Francona's in-game decisions, which may not bode well for the manager's future.
But there were no real decisions that stood out, nothing like the Pedro moment that sunk Grady Little's career in Boston.
"We needed to take care of business, and we didn't," Francona said, after calling September "the mess that we got ourselves in."
Obviously, the rotation was the biggest issue. From Aug. 30 to the end of the year, the Red Sox won only one game in which they scored fewer than seven runs, while losing the other 20.
They lost games in the eighth inning, because of Daniel Bard. And finally, at the very end, they lost one in the ninth, because of Papelbon.
He struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning Wednesday, while the Rays and Yankees were still tied in extra innings down in Florida. Then Chris Davis doubled, and Nolan Reimold doubled to tie the game.
And then Andino, who had already burned the Red Sox twice earlier in the month, lined the game-winner Crawford couldn't catch.
But the details will fade, much quicker than the memories of Dent and Boone have faded (really, they still haven't). This collapse won't rest on any one play, or any one player.
This was an entire team. This was an entire month.
This was worse.