By Tom Verducci
September 20, 2011

The Red Sox already have collapsed. It is only a matter now of whether this turns out to be the worst collapse in the history of the 162-game schedule or something less historic confined to September swoons of forgettable postseason teams.

This is not about some unlucky stretch of games for a powerhouse team bound to turn it around. The Red Sox are a significantly diminished team with not enough healthy bodies or starting pitchers who can last five innings. They are a worse team at the moment than the team chasing them, the Tampa Bay Rays, and their best hope of avoiding infamy is that starting pitchers Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are lined up to take the ball four times in the final seven games.

Boston awoke on Sept. 1 in first place in the AL East and with a nine-game cushion over Tampa Bay for the wild card spot with 27 games to play. Since then, the pitching staff is 5-14 with a 6.09 ERA, the starters have thrown two quality starts, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Erik Bedard, David Ortiz and Beckett all have broken down physically -- following J.D. Drew, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzka, Bobby Jenks, Jed Lowrie, et al -- and the cushion is down to two games. The Sox lost seven games in the standings in 18 days.

This is no fluke. The big picture about the Red Sox, which you can read about in the Moneyball issue of SI out this week, is that they are a model organization when it comes to acquiring and using information. Only the Yankees have won more games since the front office regime of Theo Epstein went to work for the 2003 season. But this September snapshot of Boston highlights the two areas that vex the organization: free agents and player health.

At crisis time, the Red Sox have $420.2 million worth of free agents nowhere to be found, at least as far as even marginal contributors: Crawford, Jenks, Matsuzaka, Drew, John Lackey, Mike Cameron and Dan Wheeler. Crawford was benched against David Price on Sunday and then missed the doubleheader Monday with a stiff neck. No word on whether he also suffered from writer's cramp from his ill-advised "diary" in which he (wrongly) called out teammate Marco Scutaro for not telling him to slide and looked ahead to postseason matchups -- which sounded a lot like a skydiver dreaming about the landing when his chute won't open.

If Crawford thinks his first year in Boston was tough, wait until he sees next year if the Sox don't reach the postseason. Every calamity needs someone to absorb the blame -- goodbye, Grady Little -- and Sox fans have Crawford in their sights. He has been awful. He is hitting just .255 with a .292 on-base percentage and has been so overmatched and late -- he was a threat every time up only to fans sitting behind the third-base dugout -- that hitting coach Dave Magadan took away his leg kick and gave him a toe-tap trigger. That hasn't helped much, either. Fastballs are overpowering him. (Crawford is hitting .189 against power pitchers.) The mechanics of his swing are technically unsound, which foretells more timing problems as he ages and the athleticism he relies on fades even a little more.

Lackey has been another bust over a longer sample. It is not a question of whether he has the makeup to succeed in Boston. It is a question of his stuff, which had been diminishing in his runup to free agency and is short. He has not been suited to pitching varsity baseball in the AL East. His ERA inside the division this year is 7.52.

Think about this: Boston has been playing American League baseball since 1901. Among all pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in a season for the Red Sox, Lackey will be the franchise's worst pitcher in more than a century of baseball. His ERA, currently swollen to 6.49, will be the highest in franchise history, ending the 47-year confinement by Jack Lamabe (5.89) at the bottom of the well.

The Red Sox do have something in their favor: only twice more do they need to give the ball to Lackey, Kyle Wieland or Tim Wakefield, who this month combined are 1-6 with a 7.71 ERA. The bullpen is crumbling from too much work. Even Lester, with his first-inning troubles and re-emerging jitters throwing to bases, is hardly failsafe. And if the Red Sox need to use Beckett and Lester on the final two days of the season just to get in, Erik Bedard and Lackey would be their likely starters for Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series.

Meanwhile, just as injuries killed their 2010 season, players keep breaking down on the Red Sox in the second half. You can talk all you want about finding the "next market inefficiency" as if you need some secret formula and an M.I.T. degree. The surest way to winning baseball remains as simple and timeless as keeping your players healthy, particularly your starting pitchers.

(Psst! Spoiler alert: From 2000-04, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder ranked 1-6-8 in starts by AL pitchers, averaging a combined 93 starts a season for Oakland. Do not, however, look too hard for them in the movie.)

This year there are 10 teams that have had three pitchers make at least 29 starts. Five of those teams are going to the playoffs (Tigers, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Phillies and Rangers) and three others have winning records.

One of these days somebody is going to put research and development into the health issue of baseball, and not just hire some strength training coach from a college football program and build a weight room with a killer sound system. The needs of baseball players are unique, and a conditioning specialist from another sport may not translate to this one. One belief I have, for instance, based on nothing but anecdotal observations, is that position players hit too much because of the improvements in facilities with the ballpark building boom. I'd love for somebody to count swings the way coaches do pitches; people would be shocked at the wear and tear. Can you say "oblique"?

I also think it may be a good idea to send some pitchers out on two-week "vacations" during the season. No; seriously. The Brewers, for instance, now are happy that Zack Greinke missed starts in April, affording him more energy down the stretch and into October. Pedro Martinez unofficially would bail with some minor ailment mid-season and be the better for it. Whatever it requires, Boston must re-examine what it takes to keep its players healthier.

It is precisely because the Red Sox are so beat up and worn down that the completion of the collapse is even in play at all. (Meanwhile, the Rays' young staff -- nobody over 30 has started a game for them in four years -- keeps rolling along.) And how gigantic would such a collapse rate on the Gagger Counter (the unscientific device used to measure the intensity of chokes)? I'd place it at as a new number three on this list of the worst collapses of all time:

1. 1995 Angels (Blew 12 ½ game lead to Seattle with 37 to play.) The Rangers actually stood in second place in the AL West, ahead of Seattle, and were 9 ½ out. But it would be the Mariners who roared back, eventually beating the Angels in a tiebreaker. California went 12-26 down the stretch, including two nine-game losing streaks.

Remember, this was a strike-shortened season. The Angels played only 145 games.

2. 1951 Dodgers (Blew a 13-game lead to New York with 48 to play.) This is a tad harsh, because Brooklyn actually had a winning record down the stretch from that peak (26-22). But the Dodgers did go 10-13 in their final 23 games, including that famous three-game tiebreaker against the Giants, who forced that tiebreaker by finishing the year on a 37-7 tear.

3. 2007 Mets (Blew a seven-game lead to Philadelphia with 17 to play.) This one happened so swiftly the Mets managed to finish two games out. Their undoing was a 4-11 tumble that included a three-game sweep at home against the Nationals while giving up 32 runs.

4. 1964 Phillies (Blew a 6 ½ game lead to St. Louis with 15 games to play.) Philadelphia rode a 10-game losing streak straight to elimination. Manager Gene Mauch started Chris Short and Jim Bunning 15 times in the team's final 24 games.

5. 2009 Tigers (Blew a seven-game lead to Minnesota with 26 to play.) The end was especially painful. Jim Leyland's club is the only team to be three games up with four to play and miss the postseason.

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