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Words needed to avoid utter disaster?

By Nick Cafardo
September 12, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Terry Francona never has been one of those “kick-’em-in the-butt’’ style managers. He treats his players like adults, cuts them slack on just about everything, and they in turn respect him and play for him.

So yesterday after a 9-1 loss to the Rays, who swept the Red Sox to cap a 1-6 road trip that left Boston only 3 1/2 games ahead of Tampa Bay in the wild-card race, Francona promised to think about things during today’s offday and come back with some answers.

“I’m going to work on it tomorrow,’’ he said. “We’ve got an offday. I’m going to work on some answers. I’ll give you some good ones on Tuesday.’’

Whether he was being facetious is anyone’s guess, but as the leader of this team, the obligation to get things turned around before the latest dip becomes a full-fledged collapse rests with him.

The players, of course, believe it rests with them.

“Got to play better, man,’’ designated hitter David Ortiz said. “When we go back to the house [Fenway Park], that should help us. This road trip was very bad. We need to come back fresh on Tuesday and go back to where we were.’’

And that was in a very comfortable position in the wild-card/division race. Remember when there was no chance the Sox wouldn’t make the playoffs? It wasn’t that long ago. Things went south in a hurry.

Ortiz indicated the team didn’t feel it had wrapped things up, saying, “Hell, no. How many games do we have left? A lot of things can happen. If we keep playing like that, we’ll be home in October, how’s that?

“Everybody is concerned about it. Everybody knows we have to get back our ‘A’ game. Nobody’s happy. You can see that around here.’’

When a reporter tried to suggest that this team was not one to panic, Ortiz jumped up and said, “At this point you panic. Hell, yeah, you’ve got to panic. But you’re not going to do anything panicking, but just [play] better. Of course you’re freaked out. You go on this road trip 1-6. That’s not good. We’ve got these guys [the Rays] breathing down our necks.’’

Something lately isn’t working. Injuries are one thing, but mental and physical errors are different.

When a stalwart such as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez comes out and says, “We’re not playing good baseball,’’ you’d better take notice.

Time for the manager to do something.

“The last thing those guys need to see is us coming in here with our tail between our legs. That’s not going to help,’’ Francona said. “We’ll come out and fight and hopefully we’ll play better Tuesday. If we don’t, we’ll try to play better Wednesday. I’ve felt like we’re going to play well, and when we don’t, we’re going to fix it.’’

When one looks over into the other dugout, Joe Maddon’s influence on his team is apparent. He’s made every player buy into his theme of, “Yes, we can,’’ and so far they can. The Rays may be trailing Boston, and maybe they’ll fall short if and when the Sox get their act together, but now they’re taking on the enthusiasm of their manager.

Granted, Maddon has more players he can influence because they’re younger, less established, make less money. And the pressure to win probably isn’t as great for Maddon as it is for Francona. When a team has a massive payroll, there can be no excuses. If it has a small payroll and overachieves such as Maddon’s Rays, the perspective is different.

It isn’t in Francona’s nature to rip his team. We actually don’t know what goes on behind closed doors when the media isn’t allowed the clubhouse, but from what we’re told, there isn’t a lot of kick-in-the-pants-type stuff going on.

And most of the time it’s not needed. The Sox normally are on automatic pilot. There always have to be tweaks with pitchers, and injuries, and there always has to be the managing of the players’ health, judging when they need a day off. But how to make a team stop being lackadaisical? That’s where the manager has to step in.

“We don’t need no meeting,’’ Ortiz said. “Everybody knows what to do here. Just play the game like we’re supposed to and things will take care of themselves. Our starting pitching will be fine. Hopefully everything gets better.’’

The solution could be as simple as having a day off to regroup and beginning a long homestand. Maybe the Sox will find their game at Fenway and last week will be a distant memory. But until it happens . . . the focus of the team has to change, because we’re starting to get to the stage where a collapse is possibly in motion.

People who watch the Rays said that Jon Lester looked like Scott Kazmir yesterday, and that’s no compliment. Lester threw 111 pitches over four innings; that’s Kazmir, all right.

On a day that James Shields pitches, a team has to bring its ‘A’ game. Lester sure didn’t, but we can give him a mulligan because he’s been solid all year. But when he’s your only ace, with Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Erik Bedard, and Daisuke Matsuzaka all out with injuries, he’s got to be better than this.

Aces rise to the occasion in tough times and Lester didn’t do it yesterday.

But this is not about Lester. It’s about the rest of the team, which has looked lethargic, appearing to lack interest at times. If the players feel they can turn the intensity on and off, and maybe they can, then excuse this interruption in the good karma. But if there isn’t concern within, there’d better be.

Scouts watching the Sox are concerned about them being able to hold on. They noticed the same lethargy. There was a momentary surge Saturday night, when Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury hit back-to-back homers to tie the score and send the game into extra innings, but Boston fell, 6-5, in 11.

“To be honest, I think the intensity and effort is right there, but everything has gone in a different direction at once,’’ Ortiz said. “The good thing is we know how to figure it out and put it together. We know how to figure it out. All at once. Everybody is in a funk. There’s nobody to blame but everybody.’’

Does it feel like the first 12 games of the season (2-10)?

“No, not that bad, but not too far away, either,’’ Ortiz said.

So what does this team need?

Is it tough love from the manager? Is it someone getting angry and overturning a food spread? Is it someone saying something from the heart that might trigger enough emotion?

The Sox clubhouse was like a morgue yesterday. The Rays clubhouse was full of energy.

“They probably feel good,’’ Ortiz said. “They just whupped our ass. To be honest, the past three days they look like they don’t have pressure.’’

“We’re trying to win . . . it’s not like we’re trying to get beat. Jeez,’’ second baseman Dustin Pedroia said when asked if the team lacked effort and intensity.

They’re not trying to get beaten, but the Sox are beating themselves. And that’s what Francona has to stop.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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