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12/26/11 10:00 AM EST

Red Sox's year defined by extremes

BOSTON -- The season that started with as much anticipation as any in recent Red Sox memory ended with a thud that was loud enough for the entire baseball world to hear.

In 2011, the Red Sox learned an old lesson in the harshest way possible. Championships are never won on paper.

So there went Josh Beckett's February hope that he could be on a 100-win team for the first time in his career.

Instead, the Sox finished with another round number -- 90 wins. That left them home for the postseason for the second consecutive season, and with a myriad of questions about where it all went wrong.

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The Red Sox became the first team to have a nine-game lead in the standings in September and not make it to the postseason.

By the time the dust had settled, there was new direction. Terry Francona left after eight largely successful seasons as manager, and was ultimately replaced by Bobby Valentine. Theo Epstein departed for the Cubs after a memorable nine-year run as general manager, giving way to his longtime assistant Ben Cherington.

In between, there were plenty of memories, both good and bad.

Jacoby Ellsbury not only came back from an injury-plagued 2010 season, but emerged into a superstar.

Adrian Gonzalez's sweet left-handed swing was just as perfect for Fenway Park as a lot of people expected.

David Ortiz avoided one of his infamous slow starts and produced his best all-around season in years, securing his spot in Boston's lineup for at least one more season.

Dustin Pedroia, even with a screw lodged in his surgically repaired left foot, had a season that was at least on par with his Most Valuable Player year of 2008.

For the second straight year, injuries hurt. Clay Buchholz didn't throw a pitch after June 16 because of back woes. Once again, Kevin Youkilis was lost down the stretch, this time due to a painful sports hernia injury.

Carl Crawford didn't come close to living up to expectations in Year One of a seven-year, $142 million contract.

With a talented roster and new leadership, there is hope that the Red Sox can make better memories in 2012. Here is one final look back at the highs and lows of 2011, recapped by the top five storylines of the calendar year.

5. 0-for-the-first road trip

The season started ominously, as the Red Sox were bludgeoned in three straight in Texas by the Ranges, and swept by the Indians in Cleveland.

Bolstered by the additions of Gonzalez and Crawford, it was hard to imagine a team with so much talent coming out of the gate so slowly.

Perhaps it was the weight of the expectations. Or maybe it was an early sign that this particular Red Sox edition didn't have the consistency of a championship team.

It was the first time since 1945 the Sox opened the season with six straight losses, and it created an uneasiness entering the Fenway Opener against the Yankees.

After a fiery pregame pep talk by Epstein of all people, Boston did crush the Yankees in the first Fenway game, but wound up starting 2-10.

4. Lights-out baseball for four months

Extremes were, to be sure, a strong component of Boston's 2011 team. That was evident again when Francona's team emerged from that 2-10 opening to a glittering 82-41 mark over the next four months.

For that 123-game stretch, the Red Sox were the best team in baseball and gave their fans every reason to believe another World Series banner was a realistic possibility.

During the best of times in '11, Beckett was magnificent, making a comeback nearly as impressive as Ellsbury's. Jon Lester was having another solid year. The offense, led by Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez and Ortiz, was magnificent.

For whatever reason, the Red Sox were never the same after having a two-day break due to Hurricane Irene. From that point on, the Sox wouldn't win two games in a row the rest of the way.

3. The amazing emergence of Ellsbury

If Ellsbury could just recapture his form of 2009, when he was a table-setting speedster who flagged down everything in center field, the Red Sox would have been happy.

Instead, he became something else entirely, adding surprising power and run-producing capability to his repertoire. Ellsbury became one of the elite players in the game and it would have landed him an MVP in many other years. He wound up placing second as a starting pitcher won the award for the first time since Boston's Roger Clemens in 1986.

Ellsbury also developed a habit for producing at the most important times. Just ask the Indians, who fell victim to his back-to-back walk-off hits on Aug. 2-3, the latter of which was a home run. And when the Red Sox were in the midst of their September free fall, Ellsbury temporarily lifted them out of it, belting a 14th-inning homer to win a Sunday night game at Yankee Stadium.

For his strong season, Ellsbury received the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove.

Ellsbury is 28 years old, which means he is right in the middle of his prime.

2. Historic September collapse, fallout

Seven and 20. It will resonate forever. That is the record the Red Sox produced in September. Even if they had gone 8-19 or 9-18, they would have played baseball beyond game No. 162.

Even in the immediate aftermath, the magnitude was clear.

"This is one for the ages, isn't it?" Epstein said in a near silent clubhouse at Camden Yards following the last game. "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."

As disastrous as it was, the Red Sox still seem primed to punch a ticket to October as late as the late innings of their final game. Not only did they hold a lead against the Baltimore Orioles, but the Rays were trailing, 7-0, to the Yankees. A Boston win and a Tampa Bay loss would have put the Sox in the postseason, where they would have faced the Rangers.

For whatever reason, everything changed during a seventh-inning rain delay at Camden Yards. With the Red Sox glued to the clubhouse televisions, the Rays, one strike away from defeat, tied it up against the Yankees. Jonathan Papelbon couldn't convert the save in the bottom of the ninth, and Boston's season ended when a line drive by Robert Andino glanced off the glove of Crawford. Moments later, Evan Longoria hit a walk-off blast for the Rays, and Boston didn't even have a one-game playoff to look forward to.

As stunning as Boston's poor September were the stories that came out in the ensuing days. Francona resigned within 48 hours of the season finale. Epstein would soon follow, replaced by the well-respected and long-tenured Cherington.

Meanwhile, reports emerged about a deterioration of culture in the clubhouse, which included pitchers drinking beer and eating fried chicken during games they weren't participating in.

1. Tito gives way to Bobby V., and vice versa

Could anybody have ever predicted Francona and Valentine would end up doing what amounted to a trade of jobs?

When Boston's prolonged search for a new manager began, Valentine was hardly even on the radar. Cherington's public first batch of interview candidates consisted of Pete Mackanin, Dale Sveum, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Torey Lovullo and Gene Lamont. In that group, only Lamont had extensive experience managing in the Majors. Sveum emerged early, but when the Red Sox weren't ready to offer him a job after a second interview, Epstein swooped in and hired him for the Cubs.

Then, the Red Sox at last divulged their interest in Valentine, which had started during an initial interview on Nov. 3 that was kept under wraps. And as the process wore on, the enigmatic Bobby V. clearly became the favorite, ultimately winning the job over Lamont.

His unveiling with the Red Sox was probably the most packed press conference at Fenway since the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka five years earlier. Valentine brings instant spice and energy to a team that perhaps needed a bit of a shakeup.

Francona, who, in the minds of many, ranks as the best manager in Red Sox history, wound up getting Valentine's old job as an analyst for Sunday Night Baseball and a co-host on Baseball Tonight.

The sight of Francona interviewing Valentine on stage at the Winter Meetings in December was a bit surreal. But then again, so was most of 2011 when it came to the Red Sox.

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.