I almost don’t know where to even begin this post. So much has happened over the past week surrounding the Red Sox that it is difficult to wrap my head around it all.
Last week this time the Red Sox were a baseball club struggling to get to the post-season, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. They had to get through a series at Yankee Stadium before heading to Baltimore for what most considered to be the series that would propel them into October baseball. The Rays were going to be playing the Yankees that last series and with even the small lead the Sox had in the Wild Card it seemed improbable that the Sox wouldn’t get themselves out of the downward spiral of September and grab the last AL playoff spot.
The last six days of the 2011 regular season would prove very different from what Red Sox Nation wanted. The Friday game rained out, they had to play two on Sunday. Lester was downright awful on Saturday night and the Sunday day game wasn’t much better. With four games left—and three of those against the Orioles—hope was still very much alive. And Sunday night the Red Sox won a thrilling extra innings game off of the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury. The game meant very little for the Yankees, but I thought it was exactly what the Sox needed to break out of their downturn and go on a tear against the O’s. The Wild Card lead over the Rays was at one game. And hope was high for the first time in weeks.
Robert Andino tears around the bases for an inside-the-park home run that the Sox couldn’t recover from. Josh Beckett looks pretty mediocre. The Rays beat the Yankees and the Wild Card race is tied. But, hey, there are two games left. If you were tied for the Wild Card wouldn’t you rather be playing against the 2011 Orioles than the 2011 Yankees?
Tuesday’s game is a bright spot. Ellsbury and Scutaro hit big homers and rookie Ryan Lavarnway seals the deal with two home runs in his first start filling in for the injured Varitek-Saltalamacchia platoon. The Rays win again so there’s one game left to break the tie. Surely the Rays can’t sweep? And even if they do, a win on Wednesday puts the Sox into a playoff tie against the Rays.
Let’s go straight to the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox are up 3–2 and Papelbon—who has been one of the Sox bright spots in 2011, in contrast to his 2009 and 2010 seasons—comes out to seal it up. Pap strikes out Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds in fine style. With one out left I thought the win was all sewn up. The Rays had battled back to tie the Yankees and were playing in extra innings, but I didn’t care. Just win our game. It’s all we can do…
Then Chris Davis doubles on a shot down the right side line. Ok. Don’t panic. Pap is in control.
Nolan Reimold comes to the plate and Pap gets him to 2–2. Two swinging strikes and we’re only a pitch away from the win. On the fifth pitch Reimold jacks a shot into the gap that hops over the wall for a ground-rule double. Kyle Hudson (who had replaced Davis at second) scores and now we’re thinking about extra innings. Who’s coming up in the tenth? Who’s Tito gonna bring out to pitch?
Andino comes to the plate. Andino who hit that inside-the-park homer on Monday night. He watches the first two pitches go by before hitting a soft shot to left. Carl Crawford drops the ball. The catch that would have sent the game to extras and kept hope alive didn’t happen. Crawford did try to throw to home to get Reimold, but it was late and off line.
Game over. Hopes crushed. The Orioles players swarmed the field in a celebration that, although I hated watching it, I completely understood. The last place team in the AL East had just beaten up on the team that had dominated the division for most of the year.
The smallest glimmer of hope flickered still, though. I flipped over to the MLB Network to see what was going on in St. Pete. If the Rays lost then there would be a playoff on Thursday. B.J. Upton was at the plate when the crowd saw the final score of the Sox game. They went nuts. Upton struck out and Longoria came to the plate. MLB Network cut back to the game just before Longoria got the sixth pitch. The one he shot over the left field wall to win the game and send the Red Sox not only back to Boston, but into a drama that no one outside the Fenway clubhouse saw coming…
Instead of playing the Rays for a spot in the postseason, the Sox players went home and Terry Francona and Theo Epstein had a press conference. Before that presser, I fully expected to see much the same team show up to Ft. Meyers for Spring Training. But a disturbingly non-committal answer was given to the question of Francona returning to manage in 2012:
"Theo [Epstein] and I talked today a little bit. I think we’ll continue to talk tomorrow. Maybe it’s best today to stay with where we’re at,” Francona said. “It’s still pretty fresh and pretty raw. It’s a fair question.”
Not exactly, “Well sure I would.”
It was a fair question, but a non-answer would only lead to more speculation, especially in Boston. Epstein told the press that he and the owners would sit down with Tito in the next couple of days to ‘discuss the future’. That sounded a lot like, ‘We aren’t firing him… Yet.’
There’s a morning meeting at Fenway with Theo, Tito, and the owners. The Boston sports press go nuts with guessing what’s going on. By that afternoon, however, it was all done. Francona was leaving the team.
Many, many sports writers are going back and forth about who’s to blame for the September Collapse and whether or not the team’s decision not to pick up Francona’s option for 2012 was mutual, but in the end the only analysis that is productive is that which can help move the team forward…
Facts are facts. Terry Francona, who won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox, is no longer the manager. The players are not the same mix of guys that Tito won those rings with. He was no longer willing, or able, to corral them anymore. Maybe it was the players’ fault, maybe it was Francona’s. Most likely it was a healthy mixture of high-paid player entitlement and a manager who had just run his course with the team. Either way, the inmates began running the asylum:
While Francona was no longer an effective messenger for the clubhouse, it also appears that the players did not effectively police themselves. To the contrary, the idea that pitchers were not merely drinking during games (a practice that is more prevalent in the game than most would care to admit) but doing so the point where it became a factionalizing clubhouse issue suggests that there was a far-reaching leadership void.
The Red Sox clubhouse isn’t the Idiots anymore. It’s a group of big personalities, and paychecks, and egos, and they need to be lead. I applaud Terry Francona for his ‘I trust my players to play’ style. I think he’s a great guy and many of his players absolutely adore him. But the Collapse has brought to light that he isn’t the leader that this group needs.
And, to be fair some of his in-game management has been, let’s say, questionable. All year long he’s left pitchers in too long. That cost the team a lot of losses, especially in September. And while baserunning may not be the Manager’s direct responsibility, if I had been the manager, I would have fired Tim Bogar a long time ago. Just ask Marco Scutaro about getting waved home rounding third.
So, let’s move on. There are three parties responsible for the team’s performance and all three have let us down. The management has been lacking in leadership and has made poor decisions on the field. The owner’s have made bad deals (John Lackey! Carl Crawford! Dice-K!) and not prioritized well. The players, with the notable exceptions of Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Scutaro (in the second half of 2011, at least), have just not performed. Ortiz did have a pretty good year, this year. But the pitching has been awful and they just don’t seem to care. I think the Crawford deal will turn out well in the end, but that’s been really hard to watch this year.
It is a tall order, but if the new manager, whoever that ends up being, can be a leader and, you know, manage the game… If the players can learn from this Collapse and rededicate themselves to conditioning and performance… If the ownership can refocus on the perennial need for good pitching and stop going after big names just to keep them from the Yankees…
If those things happen, you just might see a very different Boston Red Sox next Spring. I’m actually optimistic. Maybe the Collapse and the resulting shake-up is exactly what the team needs to get back on track.
Ask me again next October.