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12/27/10 10:00 AM EST

Painful year ends in optimism for Red Sox

BOSTON -- The buzz phrase in Red Sox Nation at the start of 2010 was run prevention. By not bringing back Jason Bay and instead investing in free agents like John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron, Boston was hoping to play a different brand of winning baseball.

Instead, run prevention was swiftly replaced by a much less savory phrase -- injury riddled.

From the start, the Sox struggled to stay healthy. Cameron's abdomen betrayed him in Spring Training and got progressively worse. Beltre plowed into Jacoby Ellsbury's left side in the sixth game of the season, and the speedy outfielder was a non-factor all year. Josh Beckett's back went bad in May, and the righty never got into a groove.

And by late June, just when the Red Sox were starting to hit their stride, medical maladies again found them. Dustin Pedroia broke his left foot on June 25 and would play just two more games. Kevin Youkilis went down for good on Aug. 2, with a torn muscle in his right thumb.

In truth, Boston, as banged up as it was, did a nice job by winning 89 games and staying in contention until the final week of the season.

Year in Review
Looking back at 2010
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But after missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2006, general manager Theo Epstein produced a flurry of drama in December, first getting Adrian Gonzalez in a blockbuster trade with the Padres and then signing free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford for $142 million over seven years.

As the year drew to a close, there was once again a wave of excitement surrounding the Red Sox. Here is a look back at the highs and lows of 2010, recapped by the top five storylines of the calendar year.

5. Lowell's return, retirement

It was hard to believe Mike Lowell was still with the Red Sox by the time the 2010 season started. In the previous two winters, his name had been attached to one trade rumbling after another and this time, Epstein signed Beltre as his replacement at third base. After yet another attempt to trade Lowell fell through at the July Trade Deadline, the veteran infielder was activated from the disabled list on Aug. 3. The Fenway faithful greeted the long-time fan favorite with a standing ovation and Lowell responded by swatting a three-run homer over the Monster on the first pitch he saw. After being mobbed by his teammates in the dugout, Lowell came back out for a standing ovation.

By the end of the season, Lowell did what he hinted at months earlier, announcing his retirement. The Red Sox held a special ceremony for Lowell at Fenway on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Though it was an emotional time for Lowell, he was able to produce once the game started. After hitting a two-run double in his first at-bat, Lowell ripped one high off the Monster in his second at-bat, and then came out for a pinch-runner, ending his fine career in style.

4. Injuries, injuries, and then some more injuries

Epstein and manager Terry Francona were in non-stop discussion with the medical staff in 2010. The Red Sox were en route to a seemingly routine win at Kansas City on April 9, when a fly ball was struck down the left-field line in the bottom of the ninth. Beltre went for it and so did Ellsbury. By the time the play was over, Beltre's knee had crashed into Ellsbury's left ribcage and the ball squirted free. Several of Ellsbury's ribs were fractured and he would play just 12 games the rest of the way, thanks to recurring problems with his left side.

A week later, Cameron went on the first of his two DL stints, and he didn't play a game after July 30. Even without two-thirds of its starting outfield, Boston still had confidence it could make a postseason run. But the air started to come out of the balloon that night in San Francisco when Pedroia, in many ways the team's lightning rod, belted a foul ball off his left foot. Just one night earlier, Pedroia had gone 5-for-5 with three homers and five RBIs in a slugfest at Coors Field. It all became a bit too much when Youkilis had to have season-ending surgery, depriving Francona of his leadoff man, his No. 2 hitter and his cleanup hitter.

3. Heroes come out of nowhere

With two-thirds of the projected starting outfield on the disabled list more than on the field, some opportunities opened up. That was how Darnell McDonald, a Minor Leaguer for most of the last 12 seasons, got the call to Fenway on April 21. And all he did was belt a game-tying, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth and a walk-off single off the Monster in the ninth to beat the Rangers. Not only that, but McDonald stayed on Boston's roster for the remainder of the season, despite nearly being designated for assignment in late May.

In most years, McDonald's debut with the Red Sox would be the best Cinderella story of the season. But Daniel Nava topped it when Boston promoted him from Triple-A on June 12. Once an independent league prospect, the Red Sox acquired Nava from the Chico Outlaws for the initial acquisition cost of $1. The story of him getting the call to the Major Leagues was noteworthy enough. But Nava made it surreal when, in front of a packed house at Fenway and a nationally televised audience on FOX, he belted a grand slam against Philadelphia's Joe Blanton on the first pitch of his career.

2. The killer B's -- Beltre and Buchholz

When the Red Sox gathered in Spring Training, Beltre was thought of as a defensive stopper, but only a complementary piece on offense. Clay Buchholz? He was trying to prove he could be the team's No. 5 starter. But once the games started to be played for real, Beltre emerged into a force, one of the best offensive players in the American League. Buchholz, meanwhile, beat Tim Wakefield out for the rotation's final spot, and emerged into an ace. The only AL starter with a better ERA in 2010 than Buchholz? Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez.

While Buchholz figures to be a staple in Boston's rotation for the next several seasons, Beltre's stay with the team was short and sweet. With the acquisition of Gonzalez from the Padres, Youkilis will move to third base, leaving no room for Beltre, who is a free agent.

1. Epstein sends Hot Stove to a boil

Victor Martinez left Boston to sign a free-agent deal with the Tigers just before Thanksgiving, and Red Sox fans began to panic. If the team wasn't going to top Detroit's offer for Martinez, did that mean they weren't going to be aggressive this winter? The answer was a resounding "No."

Epstein put together a blockbuster package of three highly-rated Minor Leaguers (Casey Kelly, Anthony Fuentes and Anthony Rizzo) to the Padres for Gonzalez on Dec. 6. Three days later, he stunned the baseball world by signing Crawford to the ninth-largest contract in history. With those two moves, Red Sox fans started salivating for Opening Day, which will be played on April 1 at Texas against the defending AL champion Rangers.

Aside from dramatically improving the offense, the Red Sox also addressed the bullpen, adding two righties with solid track records in Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.