BOSTON — Dustin Pedroia walked through the clubhouse on crutches, weaving his way through the cartons and equipment bags being packed by disappointed teammates.
Gloves, balls, jerseys — and hopes — all stashed away early as Boston Red Sox players prepared to leave town. A season filled with injuries ended Sunday without a playoff berth for just the second time in eight years.
“We did feel pretty good coming out of spring training,” general manager Theo Epstein said. “We’d like to rewind and start over and do 162 (games) over again, see how it turns out with maybe some different breaks and some different health. We’d feel pretty good about our chances, but that’s not the way you get to do it.”
Boston finished third in the AL East at 89-73, seven games behind the division champion Tampa Bay Rays and six behind wild card New York. The Red Sox spent one day in first place — when they beat the Yankees 9-7 in the season opener. On July 5, they dropped into third and stayed there the rest of the year.
Starters Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka fell short of expectations. Closer Jonathan Papelbon had his worst season. The bullpen had the AL’s third highest ERA. The overall ERA of 4.20 was the ninth-highest in the majors.
Defensively, the Red Sox had the eighth most errors in the majors, 111.
Still, the biggest problems were injuries to key players.
The first four hitters in Boston’s opening-day lineup were Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis.
Ellsbury was limited to 18 games with broken ribs, Pedroia missed all but two games after breaking his foot June 25, Martinez was sidelined for a month with a broken thumb and Youkilis missed the last two months with a torn thumb muscle.
Mike Cameron started the opener in center field but played just 48 games and had season-ending surgery for a torn abdominal muscle in late July. Backup catcher Jason Varitek played just five games after going on the disabled list July 2 with a broken foot. Beckett was sidelined from May 19-July 22 with a lower back strain.
Yet the Red Sox weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until last Wednesday.
“We went through a lot,” Martinez said. “I might say too much and, to be able to hang in there until the last (week) was pretty special.”
With an influx of minor leaguers and midseason pickups from other teams, the Red Sox managed to finish second in the majors in homers (211), second in runs (818) and tied for fifth in batting average (.268).
“We got a lot of looks at a lot of guys,” manager Terry Francona said. “I think the biggest shock to them is how important every game is to us here.”
All the injured players should be recovered by spring training. But the Red Sox could lose some of their best hitters. Martinez, who batted .302 with 20 homers, and third baseman Adrian Beltre (.321, 28, 102 RBIs) plan to become free agents. David Ortiz (.270, 32, 102) will be back if the team exercises its $12.5 million option.
Martinez and Ortiz have said they want to return. Beltre likes the Red Sox, but he might prefer the West Coast where his family lives. Carl Crawford, with his overall ability, and Jayson Werth, who would supply needed right-handed power, should draw serious offseason interest.
“It’s always a puzzle,” Epstein said. “It might be a little bit bigger puzzle, more pieces in the puzzle this year. So, unfortunately, we have a head start.”
The most encouraging developments were the growth of their 26-year-old starters, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Lester finished at 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, while Buchholz was 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA.
“It makes the glass look a lot more full,” Francona said. “They’re two young, strong, athletic pitchers that went from being good young pitchers to good pitchers and some of the elite in the league.”
Epstein’s offseason priorities are adding relievers and retaining key hitters.
He has no control over health.
“Pointing to injuries as the only reason we are where we are is a disservice that’s not going to help us get better,” he said. “Obviously, I think next year we’ll be healthier, but there are also elements of the club we want to improve independent of our health.”