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Plenty of question marks for Epstein

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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BALTIMORE - Theo Epstein put this all together.

Oh, not the collapse, but the players who authored one of the greatest collapses of all time. And so the Red Sox general manager painfully watched on a clubhouse TV last night as his team blew a 3-2 lead to the Orioles in the ninth. He watched as his players walked in from the dugout with their heads bowed in anger, disgust, and embarrassment. Epstein and his players watched the Rays beat the Yankees on Evan Longoria’s homer in the 12th inning, ending Boston’s season.

Was this worse than 2003?

“Sure, this is one for the ages isn’t it?’’ Epstein said. “What was going on in those two games . . . How poorly we played in September . . . We can’t sugarcoat this. This is awful. We did it to ourselves and we put ourselves in position for a crazy night like this to end our season.

“It shouldn’t have been this way,’’ he continued. “Seven and 20 in September. If we go 9-18, we were where we want to go [playoffs]. That’s a third of our games. The worst teams in baseball win a third of their games. There are no excuses.’’

Epstein promised an evaluation of the organization from top to bottom.

If Epstein stays - his future in Boston is in doubt after reports he may flee to the Cubs - he will face difficult decisions, such as the one he made when he fired manager Grady Little following the 2003 meltdown in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.

Will manager Terry Francona survive? Will his two-year option be picked up?

That is one of the decisions Epstein will mull the next few days.

Was it Francona’s fault? Probably not, but managers get blamed just because.

Epstein is the first to kick himself for the high-priced free agents not working out. That couldn’t have been more clear than in the ninth inning, when Gold Glove left fielder Carl Crawford couldn’t come up with Robert Andino’s sinking liner, a play he would have nine times out of 10 in his days in Tampa Bay. But since coming to Boston, Crawford hasn’t been able to live up to his fielding standards. That play allowed the winning run to score and kept Boston out of the postseason for the second straight year.

There was the John Lackey signing two years ago, which hasn’t worked out. Lackey also had a trying year off the field. The Red Sox wanted to avoid pitching Lackey in a one-game playoff so much that Epstein tried to make a deal at the last minute for Royals lefty Bruce Chen.

The Sox often seemed disinterested and not well conditioned. There were players who were too easy to fold their tents and miss games for the slightest injuries. The Sox became a soft team, not a hungry, tough team like the Rays.

Epstein was asked whether there was a chemistry problem on the team and he refused to answer so soon after the loss.

What stood out for him?

“Disappointment,’’ Epstein said. “We had a real bad start, 2-10, went 81-42 and then September happened - 7-20 impossible to explain. A huge disappointment. Nobody to blame but ourselves. We did this to ourselves.

“We don’t have any excuses. Things went wrong with injuries, but whether it was luck or fate or whatever, the over-riding factor was poor play. We have no excuses. We’ll have time to dissect it and move forward.’’

Epstein did say the organization tried to come up with solutions to turn things around before they reached this point.

“We were doing little things behind scenes,’’ he said. “Watched games over and over to see if there’s something we could help with. Talked to players. Talked to the team. We addressed the team at one point. We never wanted to give in to the inability of fate. You try to turn it around.

“We didn’t play good baseball,’’ he said. “And the pitching led the way as far as not playing good baseball.’’

After missing the playoffs two straight years there will be more reflection, more self-analysis.

“I think every year you have to look at where you are as an organization,’’ Epstein said. “The trends . . . where you’re going in the future. It’s our responsibility to do that every year and when you have a month like we had you only intensity that effort.’’

How do you evaluate a team that was nearly 40 games over .500 at one point to the one which finished 7-20?

“You can’t deny this month happened,’’ Epstein said. “Even though it was preceded by being the best team in baseball for fourth months, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

“So we’ll have to take a close look at everything that’s not right. We have to fix it and that includes the entire organization. If there’s any silver lining it’s that you can’t look the other way. You have to address it now. That’s process will be difficult but it’s something we need to do.’’

Epstein looks for fatal flaws in every season.

When asked what the fatal flaws were he said, “It was more complicated. There were a lot of factors that went into what happened here.’’

Yes there were.

This was a team that had no fire. It was a team that had no urgency.

It’s a team that needs to be hungry again.

How you do that on a team with big contracts and comfortable players is the challenge that lies ahead for Epstein.

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

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