A week from now, it will all be over. this time next week, we’ll be some 48 hours into the Red Sox offseason, having our first “who stays, who goes” discussions of the winter.

We’ve known it was coming for weeks now, but Sunday night’s extra-innings loss in New York was one final kick in the teeth to Red Sox Nation. The Sox were two outs away from finishing off a sweep and handing the Yankees their fifth straight loss. Instead, Jonathan Papelbon suffered his American League-leading eighth blown save of the year and New York was celebrating a walk-off win.

Papelbon was once again the lead character in this frustrating drama, unable to close out what would’ve been a remarkable win. The Sox stole four bases – four – in the top of the ninth and scored two off Mariano Rivera, only to have Papelbon give the lead back in a three-hit inning. Papelbon’s ERA was at 4.02 after the game – a full 1.68 higher than any other season in which he exclusively pitched out of the bullpen.

It’s an ugly season for Papelbon. Yet it was the man who pitched after him who typified what has gone wrong for Boston this season.

Hideki Okajima was once an All-Star. In 2007, he stunned AL hitters with his unorthodox delivery and a split-fingered fastball that dropped to the ground as batters helplessly flailed away. For three full seasons, he was the key setup man in a bullpen that had Papelbon waiting as a lights-out closer.

That is no longer the case. In 2010, Okajima fools no one. Sunday night, when Terry Francona had Derek Jeter intentionally walked to load the bases, you couldn’t help but feel the dread. There was no wiggle room for Okajima, who needs as much of a safety net as possible.

The move worked for one batter as Marcus Thames hit into a force at home. With one out, Juan Miranda stood at the plate and saw five pitches from Okajima. He swung at one of them, and missed. The other four sailed well wide of the strike zone. It was a walk-off walk to a hitter who might not even be on New York’s postseason roster.

It was also the fourth loss of the year for Okajima, who is undoubtedly living out his final days as a member of the Red Sox. He’ll be a free agent next week, and it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which the 34-year-old survives what promises to be a major bullpen reconstruction.

Okajima’s ERA and WHIP have gone up in each of his four seasons of big-league pitching, even as Francona has moved him to a less important role on the team. Heading into Monday night’s game, he had pitched 17 fewer innings than he had in 2009, but had already given up more hits and more runs than last season.

Once, Okajima was a vital part of the late-inning bridge to Papelbon. This year, the bridge collapsed. When it did, it threw the bullpen in disarray. Pitchers like Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen couldn’t handle the role, and were eventually shipped off to the National League via trades. Scott Atchison tried mightily to take over the seventh-inning role, and performed admirably.

Generally, however, if the Sox couldn’t get the ball to Daniel Bard in the eighth and Papelbon in the ninth, they struggled. Sometimes, as we saw Sunday night, they struggled even when they did, thanks to Papelbon’s worst season.

For all the injuries and call-ups this season, it was the team’s bullpen that did them in. It will have to be the team’s No. 1 priority when it begins to address the repairs needed for 2011.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.