September 28, 2021

Starting With Three Losses: A Historical Perspective of The Olde Towne Team

April 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

A long, cold, wet winter that still hasn’t completely transformed into spring here in the Pacific Northwest was made much more palatable by the thought of All-Stars Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Bobby Jenks wearing Boston’s carmine hose for the first time, not to mention veteran reliever Dan Wheeler, who wrapped a 2.36 ERA for the Houston Astros from 2005-2006 and a 3.24 mark for the Tampa Bay Rays from 2008-2010 around a gaudy 5.30 ERA in 2007. Even with that lone blemish you’re looking at a hurler with a 3.31 ERA over his last 419 games. Mix that with closer Jonathan Papelbon, who’s under fire after “struggling” to 37 saves and a 3.90 ERA last year, but who has yet to save fewer than 35 games since becoming Boston’s fireman in 2006; add a dash of young flamethrower and closer of the future Daniel Bard (1.93 ERA and 9.2 K/9 in 73 games); a sprinkle of Jenks (3.40 career ERA and 173 saves in six seasons coming into 2011); and a little (okay, a lot) of southpaw Dennys Reyes (2.63 ERA in his last 325 games) and you have a recipe for a dominant bullpen.

It was all smiles for the Red Sox in March when they were favored by many to win the World Series (WEBN-TV/flickr)

But with the studs anchoring Boston’s rotation—27-year-old Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 in 2010), 32-year-old veteran John Lackey (15-11, 3.93 average over 10 seasons), 26-year-old Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 last year), soon-t0-be 31-year-old Josh Beckett, owner of a lifetime mark of 112-74 and two World Series rings, and one-time Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka, the oft-injured and exasperating right-hander, who has the ability to be a top-line starter as he showed in 2008 when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA—who needs a bullpen?

A lineup comprised of a healthy (knock on wood) core of some of the game’s best hitters and most exciting players—Crawford, who averaged 100+ runs and 50+ steals per 162 games in his first nine seasons; Gonzalez, who averaged 33 homers and 102 RBIs per 162 playing in one of the worst hitters parks in baseball history; Jacoby Ellsbury, who averaged 105 runs and 66 steals from 2008-2009 before getting hurt last year; Kevin Youkilis (career 128 OPS+), Dustin Pedroia (Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Glover and three-time All-Star); David Ortiz, the all-time leader in RBIs as a DH and a man who’s averaged 36 homers and 119 runs batted in per 162 games over 15 seasons—was a virtual lock to score 1,000 runs.

On paper, Boston looked like a team that could cruise to 100 wins and their third World Series title in their last eight seasons. Maple Street Press called the Red Sox’s lineup “a loaded Boston Attack” and Chad Finn of the Boston Globe wrote exactly what all of us in Red Sox Nation were thinking: “While the old season was over too soon, the new one can’t get here soon enough…The long winter is over, and the summer is about to deliver the most compelling Red Sox team since this generation’s recent heyday of Pedro [Martinez], Manny [Ramirez], and Papi [Ortiz].”

Yet after only three games, all losses, I’m left to sit here and wonder what the hell is going on and how are the Red Sox going to overcome this lackluster start? Too soon to panic? Of course. There are still 159 yet to be played and losing three on the road to the defending A.L. champs is nothing to be ashamed of. But that hasn’t stopped me from looking back on history to see how other Red Sox teams have fared after starting a campaign with at least three losses. Actually there’s still hope, albeit a little dim.

1901: After stealing the core of their lineup from the National League, much like the rest of the A.L. did in its infancy, the Boston Americans ran into a little karma and lost their first three tilts, two to the Orioles and one to Connie Mack’s Athletics before registering their first victory with an extra-inning 8-6 win in Philadelphia. Boston lost their next game to the A’s, 14-1, but pounded the Mackmen on May 2 in a 23-12 drubbing. Once they got their bearings, the Americans won more than 59% of their remaining games and finished in second place, only four games behind the White Sox.

1905: Only two years removed from winning the first modern-era World Series in major league history and a year removed from winning the A.L. pennant, the 1905 Americans began the season 0-6 with losses to Philadelphia and Washington before securing their first victory, a 3-0 shutout of the A’s by journeyman hurler George “Sassafrass” Winter. Boston won only three of its first 13 games, but played .540 ball the rest of the way to finish in fourth place at 78-74.

Chick Stahl, circa 1897, led the 1906 Boston Americans with 51 RBIs in his final season before committing suicide in 1907

1906: Unlike their first two oh-fer starts, the Americans started poorly, ended poorly and played poorly in between. The closest the ’06 squad came to a winning record was in August when they went 13-13. They started 0-3-1 and if they thought that tie was like kissing their sister, I can only imagine how they felt after losing 27 of their first 33 games, including 20 straight from May 1 to May 24. By the time they won their seventh game of the season on May 25 they were already 16 games out of first.

The aging club—they had the oldest pitching staff in the league and the third oldest regular lineup—scored less than three times a game while allowing more than 4.5 runs. They were the only team that failed to score at least 500 runs, allowed more than 700 runs and committed more than 300 errors. Their two best hitters—Chick Stahl and Moose Grimshaw—knocked in 99 runs combined, and their best pitcher, Bill Dinneen, went 8-19 despite a respectable (for the Deadball Era) 2.92 ERA. It’s no wonder the team went 49-105 and finished 45 1/2 games out of first.

1923: In the final year of Harry Frazee’s reign, the Red Sox got off to an 0-4 start and never recovered, posting losing records in every month of the season. Unlike the 1906 squad that treated their fans to one bloody 20-game stretch of futility that killed their pennant hopes before June, the 1923 team tortured Fenway faithful with paper cuts, never losing more than five games in a row en route to a 61-91 finish that found them in last place for the second straight season and in the second-division for the fifth consecutive year, following the team’s fifth World Series title in 1918.

Not surprisingly, the Boston offense in 1923 was woeful, scoring only 3.79 runs per game in a league that averaged 4.78; the pitching was awful, allowing 5.22 runs per game in a league where no one else allowed more than 4.97; and the Sox’s defense ranked last in the league in fielding (.963) and first in errors (232). Had Frazee not traded and/or sold most of the team’s legitimate players, mostly to the Yankees, for a roster full of pretenders during a period coined “The Rape of the Red Sox,” there’s no telling how good they could have been. But without Babe Ruth, Carl Mays, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, “Bullet Joe” Bush, “Sad Sam” Jones, “Jumping Joe” Dugan, Wally Schang, Muddy Ruel, Everett Scott, Stuffy McInnis and the rest of the players Frazee jettisoned, the Red Sox wouldn’t reach .500 again until 1934. Meanwhile from 1921-1932, the Yankees, who benefited most from dealings with Frazee, won seven pennants and four championships. Ouch.

1925: Until 1932, no squad in franchise history was as inept as the 1925 Red Sox, who found themselves more than 10 games out of first after only 23 games. They lost early and often, starting with their first three, and were only 2-10 through April, and 14-27 through May. The Sox never won more than three in a row that season and were 52 games out of first with three to play before a sweep of the pennant-winning Washington Senators pulled them to a mere 49 1/2 games out at season’s end.

Much like their predecessors, they were last in offense, scoring almost a full run less per game than league average; in pitching, surrendering almost a full run more per game than league average; and in defense. Their best hitter, Ike Boone, was such a liability in the outfield he spent only two seasons in the majors as a regular despite a career .321 average and an OPS+ of 122. Their best pitcher, Howard Ehmke, posted a 122 ERA+ and finished 24th in MVP voting, but went only 9-20 two years removed from winning 20 games for a team that won only 61, accounting for almost a third of the team’s victories.

1927: The way the Yankees blew the competition away in 1927, it matters little that the Red Sox started the season with six straight losses before winning their first tilt.

Outfielder Ira Flagstead was the only Red Sox regular with an OPS+ over 100 in 1927

That the Bronx Bombers won their first six, shoving Boston six games out of first before the season’s first week was over, is pretty much all you need to know about the 1927 Carmine Hose. After winning only 15 of their first 66 games—they went a putrid 4-24 in June—the Sox were already 32 1/2 games out of first and 12 1/2 games behind the seventh-place St. Louis Browns.

Their pitching and defense weren’t the worst in the league for a change—they ranked seventh in both just ahead of the Browns—but their offense was terrible and they managed to plate fewer than four runs a game in a league that averaged almost five.

Boston’s two best hitters were Ira Flagstead, who posted an OPS+ of 103, and Fred Haney, who posted a mark of 112, but had only 149 plate appearances. Add those two together and you still fall short of Babe Ruth (225 OPS+) and Lou Gehrig (220). Yikes! With a record of 59-103, the Red Sox finished 59 games behind the eventual world champion Murderers’ Row Yankees.

1931-1933: The 1931 season began a string of three straight years in which the Red Sox lost their first three contests, and none of them turned out well. Four years after being embarrassed by the Yankees, Boston, and most of the A.L. for that matter, was embarrassed by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, who went 107-45. The Sox reached a double-digit deficit on May 21, only 29 games into the campaign and never got closer than 10 games from the top of the standings. As usual, their offense was their undoing, although they boasted one hitter that brought excitement to The Fens in the form of 33-year-old Earl Webb, who belted out 67 doubles to set a single-season record that still stands. Webb never had more than 30 two-baggers in any other season during his seven-year career, but caught lightening in a bottle in 1931 and gave Red Sox fans something to cheer about.

Unfortunately the cheering turned to deafening silence in 1932 when the franchise fielded its worst team ever. Of course, they were drawing less than 2,400 fans per game, so no one was there to witness the debacle. The ’32 squad won 12 of their first 67 games and were 36 games out of first place on June 30, en route to a team-worst 43-111 mark and a last-place finish that found them 64 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. They had an offensive star in Dale Alexander, who came over from the Tigers in a June trade and batted .372 for Boston and won the batting title with a .367 mark. Roy Johnson, who also came over from Detroit, hit 11 homers in 94 games with the Sox, and Smead Jolley, an all-hit/no-glove outfielder in the mold of Ike Boone, batted .309 with 18 homers and 99 RBIs.

Yet the team managed to score only 566 times, 101 less than the next worst team, the Chicago White Sox, and 436 less than the, you guessed it, New York Yankees. And Boston’s pitching was awful, allowing almost six runs per contest.

Tom Yawkey purchased the team in 1933 and the team improved by 20 games, but still finished in seventh place with a record of 63-86. For the first time in a while, they also showed life at the plate and on the mound, but not in the field. The Red Sox finished fourth in runs scored and allowed per game, and with a little luck could have finished with almost 70 wins, something they hadn’t done since 1921. They boasted a solid core of hitters, though most were 30 or older, and a rotation with five pitchers who all finished with an ERA+ over 100.

1945: After a five-year stretch from 1938-1942 in which the Red Sox became relevant and competitive again, most of the war years were not kind to the team, especially 1945 when Boston started the season by losing their first eight games before beating the A’s on April 28 for their first win. The team recovered nicely, though, and went 41-27 after their eight-game losing streak and came within 2 1/2 games of first place as late as July 15 before falling off again. They finished in seventh place with a record of 71-83 and a 17 1/2-game deficit.

Dave "Boo" Ferriss won 21 games for the Red Sox in 1945. No other pitcher won more than 8.

1948: If 2011 Red Sox fans are looking for hope, they need look no further than the ’48 squad that lost their first three games, then went 96-55 the rest of the way to forge a tie with the Cleveland Indians and force a one-game playoff to determine who would go on to play the Boston Braves in the Fall Classic. Led by Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr at the plate and young southpaw Mel Parnell on the mound, the ’48 Red Sox finished first in runs scored with 907 and third in runs allowed per game at 4.65.

But that didn’t translate into a pennant, for Sox skipper Joe McCarthy tabbed 36-year-old journeyman hurler Denny Galehouse to face the Indians at Fenway Park with the pennant on the line, and the Sox got blasted by the Lou Boudreau-led Tribe, 8-3. Cleveland then went on to defeat the Braves in the World Series, breaking Boston’s heart a second time.

1951: Coming off heartbreaks in ’48 and ’49, when the Red Sox lost the last two games of the season to the Yankees and blew the pennant, and ’50, when the team scored 1,027 runs but still finished in third place, the 1951 Sox started 0-3, fittingly losing their first two at Yankee Stadium, before righting the ship and going 87-64 the rest of the way and finishing in third place again. They continued to boast the league’s best offense and their pitching was in the middle of the pack, only slightly worse than league average, but the Yankees and Indians were just too strong for the rest of the circuit.

1966: The ’66 team appeared to be snakebitten from the start, blowing a 4-3 ninth inning lead to the Orioles on Opening Day, then losing in extra innings; losing another extra-inning game to Cleveland after jumping to a 7-6 lead in the seventh; then losing another extra-inning affair the very next day. The Red Sox began the season with five losses, three by one run and in extra frames, before shutting out the Tigers on April 19. Unfortunately that was as good as it got. After only 18 games, the Sox were already 10 games out of first, and the closest they would get the rest of the way was nine games after a doubleheader sweep of the Minnesota Twins on May 8.

Boston finished in ninth place with a record of 72-90, but there were two silver linings. The Yankees finished last, and the Sox would go on to win the American League pennant only a year later, beginning a run in which the team would finish below .500 only twice from 1967-1990.

1977: Just as they had 11 years before, the Red Sox began the 1977 season by blowing a lead on Opening Day, then losing in extra innings, this time to Cleveland. The Indians drubbed the Sox, 19-9, in the second game and 1977 was beginning to look like a nightmare. Two more losses followed before they finally put a W on the board, but Boston recovered nicely and pounded the hell out of the rest of the league with a league-leading 213 home runs, eight of which came against the expansion Toronto Blue Jays on July 4. Led by Jim Rice with 39, the Red Sox boasted five players who hit at least 26 home runs, including 37-year-old veteran Carl Yastrzemski.

But the pitching was only average and the defense not very efficient, and the Sox finished in a second-place tie with Baltimore, both sporting 97-64 records and a 2 1/2 game deficit to the Yankees. Still, they were in the pennant chase the whole way, going up by as many as five games on June 23 and never being more than 4 1/2 out of first.

1987: A year removed from their devastating loss to the New York Mets in the ’86 Fall Classic, the Red Sox began the ’87 season with three straight losses, two of which were one-run affairs, to Milwaukee. After winning his first 14 decisions in 1986 en route to the A.L. Cy Young and MVP Awards, Roger Clemens was shelled in his first start of the 1987 campaign, but enjoyed another excellent season, going 20-9 with a 2.97 ERA and winning his second consecutive Cy Young. But, despite a career year from veteran Dwight Evans, another batting title for Wade Boggs and the emergence of young outfielder Mike Greenwell, the Red Sox finished fifth in the American League East at 78-84, mostly due to below average pitching, the least efficient defense in the league and a 3-12 record in extra-inning games.

1989: In what was to become a pattern, the ’89 squad lost 5-4 to Baltimore in extra innings on Opening Day, then did it again three games later in Kansas City, falling 2-1 in 10 innings after losing 6-4 and 9-8 in the first two games of a three-game set. The 0-4 start put them in last place, three games off the lead, but they managed to stay in the race and were only a game and a half out as late as August 12 before the Blue Jays got hot and put the division away. As usual, the Sox had the league’s best offense, but were doomed by sub-par pitching and a poor defense, and finished in third place with a 83-79 mark.

1996: It’s been 15 years since the Red Sox last lost their first three games to start a season and much like the ’48 squad, the ’96 team might give us hope that 2011 could still result in a postseason berth.

Will the 2011 Red Sox take a cue from Mo Vaughn and the '96 squad and get back in the race?

After losing their first five games, including another extra-inning loss in game four, the ’96 Sox went 85-72 and finished in third place, only seven games out of first and three out of second.

Prior to 1995, finishing three games out of second wouldn’t have given one much to celebrate but splitting each league into three divisions and adding a wild card doubled the number of postseason entries and teams took advantage of that, including second-place Baltimore, who earned a spot in the ’96 playoffs and a chance to play the Yankees in the ALCS after the O’s defeated the Indians in the ALDS. The Yankees beat the Orioles, then the Braves for yet another World Series ring, but that Boston finished only three games out of the wild card after a 0-5 start should give Red Sox Nation hope this year.

Only once in 17 seasons in which the team began with three losses did they finish in first place and that ended in a tie with Cleveland and a trip home after a one-game playoff. But seven times, the Sox have recovered to finish over .500 and five of those came after 1948. So is the season already over for Boston? Not even close, but they have a tough uphill battle against history, odds and the rest of the American League and in a game that doesn’t feature a clock and sometimes seems endless, the Red Sox are already running out of time and opportunities.

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