BALTIMORE (AP) — Jon Lester stood in front of a pack of reporters and cameramen, wearing a sharp suit with nowhere to go but home.
Someone asked the Boston Red Sox pitcher what he will remember most about this season, and without hesitation he whispered a one-word answer.
The Red Sox completed their late-season collapse in horrific and historic fashion Wednesday night, falling out of the playoff chase by allowing two ninth-inning runs in a 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
Boston held a nine-game lead in the AL wild-card race after Sept. 3, but a 7-19 September swoon left them tied with Tampa Bay entering the final day of the regular season.
Only minutes after this game ended, the Rays completed their comeback from a 7-0 deficit with an 8-7 win over the New York Yankees in 12 innings.
Boston became the first team to miss the postseason after leading by as many as nine games for a playoff spot entering September, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“We’ll go down in history as one of the worst collapses in history, so it definitely doesn’t feel good to be part of that,” left fielder Carl Crawford said. “We had high expectations, and to fall short the way we did is definitely disappointing for us.”
Boston’s 7-20 record for the month is its worst September since an identical mark in 1952.
“It’s just shocking. We should be playing a one-game playoff right now,” Lester said. “It’s just one of those things. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t our year.”
Even if Tampa Bay lost, the Red Sox faced the prospect of a quick turnaround following a long night at Camden Yards that included a rain delay of 1 hour, 26 minutes in the middle of the seventh inning.
When the rain came, Tampa Bay trailed 7-0. By the time play resumed, the Rays and Yankees were tied at 7 heading into the 10th inning.
The Orioles won it in the ninth against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon (4-1), who struck out the first two batters before giving up a double to Chris Davis. Nolan Reimold followed with a double to score pinch-runner Kyle Hudson, and Robert Andino completed the comeback with a single to left that a sliding Crawford couldn’t glove.
“I was just overthrowing the ball, not really focusing on location,” Papelbon said. “I felt great. I felt great all year.”
It was only his third blown save of the season and only defeat.
“I don’t think is going to define me as a player. I don’t think this is going to define this ballclub this year,” Papelbon said, his voice breaking. “I don’t know about everyone else in this clubhouse, but whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Jim Johnson (6-5) worked the ninth for Baltimore.
“To walk off, everybody wants to walk off,” Andino said. “It’s priceless man, you don’t have any words for it. Just enjoy it, and there’s no tomorrow, so next year.”
The same can be said for Boston.
Dustin Pedroia homered for the Red Sox, who went through the entire month of September without winning consecutive games.
“I’m devastated. I’m heartbroken,” Pedroia said. “To play hard for 161 games like we have and have it end like this. … It should not have gone down to the last game of the season to decide if we were going to the postseason.”
Pitching on three days’ rest, Lester limited the last-place Orioles to two runs and four hits over six gritty innings. But it wasn’t enough to prevent the Red Sox from absorbing one final blow.
“We’re not very happy right now,” manager Terry Francona said. “We needed to take care of business and we didn’t.”
Boston had several chances to pad a 3-2 lead it took in the fifth inning but was never able to complete the task.
After Pedroia hit a solo homer off Alfredo Simon in the fifth, the Orioles got the potential tying run to third base in the bottom half and in the sixth before Lester worked out of trouble.
In the seventh, Boston’s David Ortiz was thrown out trying to stretch a single, and with two outs rookie catcher Ryan Lavanway bounced into a fielder’s choice. Lavanway, who homered twice in an 8-7 win Tuesday, went 0 for 5 and stranded nine runners.
The Red Sox blew another chance to increase the lead in the eighth when Marco Scutaro took off from first base on a double by Crawford.
But Scutaro stutter-stepped before getting to third and was out at the plate.
In the ninth, Lavanway grounded into a double play with one out and the bases loaded. It was the third time he came to the plate following an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez.
About 10 minutes later, Boston’s season was done.
“I can guarantee you that everyone in this room will learn from this,” Ortiz said. “Trust me, a lot of guys in here will be thinking about what happened for a long time.”
The Red Sox went up 1-0 in the third when Mike Aviles walked, took second on a single by Jacoby Ellsbury and scored on a single by Pedroia. Ellsbury’s single extended his hitting streak against Baltimore to 36 games, dating to April 2009.
J.J. Hardy hit a two-run homer in the bottom half, only minutes after the scoreboard showed the Yankees increasing their lead over Tampa Bay to 5-0. Hardy’s 30th homer followed a leadoff walk to Davis.
Boston pulled even in the fourth when Scutaro doubled, advanced on a groundout and scored on a balk.
NOTES: Hardy’s homer gave Baltimore two players with 30 (Mark Reynolds 37) for the first time since 1996, when Brady Anderson had 50 and Rafael Palmeiro hit 39. … Lester’s performance lowered the ERA of Boston’s starters this month to 7.08.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)