BOSTON — Heck, the Rays could have done this.
A stunning ninth-inning bullpen blowup, following two games of offensive ineptitude, is now the story of the Red Sox season, which came to a wicked end Sunday, the 7-6 loss completing a three-game sweep by the soaring Angels.
"We thought we had a better team than this," outfielder Jason Bay said in a silent Sox clubhouse. "It's disappointing just given the position we were in. We thought we had a good shot. To lose three straight, and that last one to get away from you, it hurts."
"The season doesn't wind down, it just comes to a crashing halt," manager Terry Francona said. "You go into the top half of the inning excited because you think you're going to keep playing. Half an inning later, you're going home. So it's disappointing."
More so because of the cruel way it happened: Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't allowed a run in his first 26 postseason innings, a strike away — three times — from the final out and failing each time. The early 5-1 lead the Sox took against ex-Ray Scott Kazmir, the two-run margin they carried into the ninth that had the Fenway faithful believing, all just precedes to the colossal collapse.
"Your team fights to put you in that situation to call on you, and you let them down," Papelbon said. "Definitely not a good feeling. … I may be replaying this on the TV in my weight room this offseason, giving me a little bit more motivation for next season."
Of course, it wasn't all about Boston blowing it, as the Angels showed tremendous desire and resiliency in staging the comeback, capped by what may have been the biggest of Vladimir Guerrero's 2,271 career hits.
"We found something (this season)," Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter said. "We found some heart, we found purpose and passion, and we showed it this series. One of the best teams in the East, one of the best closers in the game, we went out there and did our thing."
The ninth didn't start particularly promisingly, two quick outs and Papelbon ahead of Erick Aybar 0-and-2. "You've got doubts in your head," Hunter said. But Aybar, brother of the Rays' Willy, slapped a single to center, then Brandon High product Chone Figgins — after being ahead 3-and-0 then fouling off a full-count pitch — drew a walk.
Bobby Abreu, the free-agent bargain of the offseason ($5 million, one year) who has keyed the Angels' offensive improvement, worked a tremendous at-bat, taking a ball, fouling off three fastballs (96-96-97 mph) and doubling off the leftfield wall to make it 6-5. "That's what Bobby has done all year for us," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Francona then made a debatable decision, walking Hunter (who was 3-for-5 with a homer off Papelbon) to load the bases and bring up Guerrero (1-for-10). "We thought it would give us a better chance to win," Francona said. "It didn't work."
Papelbon accelerated the ending, throwing a first-pitch strike to the notoriously free swinger, and Guerrero's liner to center scored two more and, an uneventful bottom-of-the-ninth later, sent the Angels into the AL Championship Series.
And the AL wild-card winning Red Sox home.
"You're just kind of waiting and planning on playing tomorrow," Bay said. "And all of a sudden one thing leads to another, and you look back and it was kind of like, 'Wow, what just happened?' "
Like the Rays, they'll have a long offseason to think about it.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com