BALTIMORE -- The Red Sox had their bags packed for either a one-game playoff at Tropicana Field, or even better, a trip to Texas to start the American League Division Series. But by the end of one final unraveling, they had nowhere to go but home.
This, after the worst September collapse in baseball history.
A surreal month ended in jarring fashion, the Red Sox suffering a walk-off 4-3 loss to the last-place Baltimore Orioles with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
"We should have won that game," said slugger David Ortiz, "but it seemed like everything was going in the wrong direction. So many things happened that you think about -- you're very disappointed."
One strike away from victory, ace closer Jonathan Papelbon couldn't finish off the Orioles, who beat the Red Sox five times in seven games over the final two weeks. Nolan Reimold drilled a ground-rule RBI double to tie the game, and Robert Andino followed with the crushing capper, a line-drive single that Carl Crawford trapped, and then dropped.
"You get in that situation, you hope things go your way. It's a game of inches," Papelbon said.
And that was how Boston's 7-20 September ended, and shortly thereafter, the season.
"This is one for the ages, isn't it?" said general manager Theo Epstein. "We can't sugarcoat this. This is awful. We did it to ourselves and put ourselves in a position for a crazy night like this to end our season. It shouldn't have been this way."
But it was, and nobody can pinpoint exactly why.
The Red Sox led the Wild Card standings by nine games when the month started, making them the first team in history to miss the postseason after having that big a lead in September. The Braves suffered a similar fate in Atlanta, losing an 8 1/2-game lead.
When Boston's game ended, its only hope of playing another game hinged on the Yankees being able to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in extra innings. But just as Red Sox players trudged into the clubhouse after their game had ended, Evan Longoria ended things in Tropicana Field, belting a walk-off homer in the 12th.
Nobody in Boston's clubhouse was surprised how that game ended. The writing, it seemed, was on the wall.
"I wasn't watching," said first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "I don't know if some other guys were. I didn't care. We were going to find out eventually. The way they were down seven in the eighth inning, for them to come back, you know they were going to win that game."
Francona was so stunned in the aftermath of his team's lost season that he doesn't even remember how he heard about Longoria's homer.
The Sox led the Rays by 10 games on Aug. 17 and are the first team since the advent of the Wild Card to blow a double-digit lead. After sweeping a doubleheader on Aug. 27, Boston didn't win as many as two games in a row for the rest of the season.
In the immediate aftermath, Francona admittedly had a tough time putting the difficult month -- and the disastrous final chapter -- in perspective.
"I don't know. I don't know how to evaluate it," Francona said. "Every time you lose, it hurts. When you go home before you're ready, it hurts. As tough as it's been this last month, we weren't ready to go home. You want to go home when you dictate, not when somebody makes you. It's extremely disappointing."
It was just Papelbon's third blown save in 34 opportunities.
"We leaned on him for so much," Francona said. "We didn't extend the lead. If you make a mistake, it can cost you a game, and that's what happened. He's been there for us so many times. I'd give him the ball again. It just didn't work."
If the Red Sox had simply had a bad September, they'd be preparing for the postseason instead of dissecting their downfall. But they had a disastrous one -- the worst the club has had since that same 7-20 mark back in 1952.
"When you have the kind of month that we have, as it develops, you worry that you're not going to accomplish your goals. We sure didn't," said Epstein. "If we go 9-18 in September, we're where we want to be, and 9-18 is, what, winning a third of your games? The worst teams in baseball win a third of their games. There's no excuse -- we did this to ourselves."
For a while, the Sox sure seemed like they were going to see another day. Pitching on three days' rest for just the second time in his career -- and first since 2008 -- Jon Lester got the job done.
The lefty wasn't overpowering, but he was effective, giving up four hits and two runs over six innings. Lester walked four and struck out five, throwing 93 pitches. It was the end of a three-start slump.
"I'm pretty shocked," Lester said. "Not only with the Rays game, but in our game, we've got the best closer in baseball. That stuff doesn't happen to him. The only word that I can say is shocked right now."
Alfredo Aceves came on for the seventh, but an hour and 26 minutes late, thanks to a rain delay.
And it seemed that everything changed during that delay. The Rays came storming back in their game. Down to their last strike, Dan Johnson, who has haunted Boston in Septembers past, belted a game-tying solo homer.
Aceves got through the seventh, working around two hit batters.
The Sox tried to pad their lead in the eighth. Marco Scutaro, who has been marvelous this month, drilled a one-out single to right. Crawford smashed a double to left-center, and Scutaro tried to score from second. But the Orioles executed the play perfectly, as Adam Jones threw a strike to J.J. Hardy, who got the relay home in time to get Scutaro.
Scutaro thought the ball had been caught, forcing him to stop, and ultimately get to the plate too late.
"I kind of stopped. I couldn't see the ball," Scutaro said. "I looked for the ball, and it went underneath, so I couldn't see if he caught it. I heard the screaming, but I don't know if it was their crowd or our crowd, so I don't know if he made the play or not. I just got a bad read. I should have just kept going."
The Sox had first and third and nobody out in the ninth, but they still didn't score, creating another tight situation for Papelbon.
And there was also Crawford, whose tough first year in Boston was capped by a ball he came agonizingly close to corralling, only to have it slip away -- along with the season.
"It was a tough play," Crawford said. "I tried to do the best I could. It was real close. Man on second, big lead, he probably was going to score if I played it off the hop. I felt it tip my glove, so I knew it hit my glove at one point. I had to come in and try to make a play on it and just couldn't do it."
And the Red Sox, who started the season 2-10, played dominant baseball in the middle and collapsed in the end, were finished.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis -- two cornerstones -- had stayed healthy. But they didn't. And the Red Sox didn't overcome it the way championship teams do.
"We don't have any excuses," Epstein said. "Things went wrong from an injury standpoint -- luck or fate or whatever you have it. But the overriding factor was just poor play. We did it to ourselves. We have no excuses. We'll have time to dissect it going forward. Right no,w it's just nasty disappointment, obviously."
And a flight home -- the one place the Red Sox had no interest in going.