Red Sox manager Terry Francona believes in the big picture, in managing for the long haul, and he has generally had the team to implement that philosophy. For the past eight years, the Red Sox often have been loaded with talent. They are loaded this year more than any other. Francona has usually stayed out of the way, remained patient, let the talent come through and put his faith in his players.
Now his players are failing him, plain and simple, and the only real question is whether Francona has put too much trust in them for far too long during a September in which the Red Sox have gone retro.
The Red Sox spiraled to a 7-5 loss to the dreadful Baltimore Orioles last night in an unsightly, inglorious fashion. The Sox led 5-4 through six innings, at which point Francona called upon set-up man Daniel Bard to start the seventh inning for the first time in this season. In the eighth, with two men on base, Francona called on closer Jonathan Papelbon for a five-out save for the first time this year. The moves subsequently blew up in the manager’s face like some cheap, trick cigar, undoubtedly giving Francona the kind of ammunition against those who lately have wondered whether he has managed too passively.
“It didn’t work,” Francona matter-of-factly told reporters after the game.
No, it didn’t.
But that hardly means it was the wrong move.
This is baseball we’re talking about, and we all understand how the game is played now in an age of statistical super-saturation and an endless stream of sabermetrics. Players have averages and percentages, and the manager’s job is to get them to those levels. One of Francona’s strengths, as a former player, is his ability to relate to those on the field, to understand what they feel and what they are going through, to give them assurance they sometimes lack in themselves. He is brilliant at it.
But what happens now, in the regular season, when the Red Sox are reeling like at perhaps no other time in the Francona era? Bard has been cracking for weeks, and Francona might have pulled him for Papelbon in a game at Toronto on Sept. 7. He did not. He might have done the same against Toronto at Fenway Park on Sept. 14. He did not. Partly as the result, the Red Sox are the predicament they are in now, fighting for a playoff spot with a one-game lead in the loss column when two more wins would have made all the difference in the world.
In the big picture, naturally, Francona’s philosophy makes all the sense in the world. The Red Sox may need to lean on Bard and Papelbon in the postseason, when the season turns from a marathon to a sprint, and so saving bullets during the regular season makes sense. Prior to last night, Papelbon had appeared in a game prior to the ninth inning on only two occasions this year, the last coming on May 9. All of that cannot help but make one wonder if Francona should have tried last night's Papelbon move sooner, when a little urgency might have made a difference, particularly at a time when Bard was racking up so many defeats that he now has more losses than any reliever in baseball.
This month alone, Bard has lost four games, though that includes last night, a game in which Papelbon allowed the decisive hit.
Here’s the point: Francona’s patience has often served him well over his time in Boston, but it has not served him always. He has been too married to Bard during this stretch. As much as we laud Francona for sticking with people like Dustin Pedroia (2007) and Mark Bellhorn (2004 postseason), he also stayed far too long with Coco Crisp in 2007. Jacoby Ellsbury had a monster World Series against the Colorado Rockies that year, but there were those in the Boston organization who believed Ellsbury should have been in the lineup far earlier.
Then there is the matter of Kyle Weiland, the recently-turned 25-year-old who now has an 8.72 ERA in five starts. Injuries obviously played a role in Weiland’s place in this race at all, but the Red Sox gave him the ball for three straight turns during a September collapse when they might have stopped at one or, maximum, two, before turning to Alfredo Aceves. As it was, Aceves ended up pitching three innings in relief of Weiland in the first game of Monday’s doubleheader, an eventual 6-5 Red Sox defeat after which David Ortiz publicly wondered why Weiland was continuing to get starts.
John Lackey? Tim Wakefield? Erik Bedard? Fine. Francona can’t replace everybody and the pitching shortage is an obvious problem. But in 2004, when the Red Sox were down 3-0 to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, Francona made some bold, aggressive moves. He brought his scheduled Game 4 starter (Wakefield) in to pitch relief in Game 3. He started Derek Lowe on two days of rest in Game 7. There were some desperate maneuvers made, to be sure, but they worked.
For the Red Sox, unfortunately, September has turned into a desperate time. And desperate times call for desperate measures.
All of that said, there have been some disturbing trends with this Red Sox team, which suddenly seems like a rather front-running lot. The Sox haven’t blown many games late this year – they are a perfect 76-0 when leading after eight innings – but they haven’t won many late, either. Entering tonight’s meeting with the Orioles, the Sox are a mere 2-58 when trailing after seven innings, a rather disturbing number for a team with the best offense in baseball. They have 40 come-from-behind victories. By contrast, the 2004 Red Sox, for example, won five games after the seventh inning and had 47 come-from-behind wins, a difference that might seem relatively minimal were it not for the simplest truth.
Right now, those games are the difference between the Sox having all but locked up a playoff spot or having to fight for their playoff lives. (The 2004 Sox also won both Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS despite trailing after seven innings.) And while last night’s game does not get added to the list of such defeats – the Orioles took the lead in the top of the eighth – it might as well be. After the Orioles took the lead in the top of the eighth, the Sox did not place a base runner via hit or walk in the eighth or ninth. Their only base runner (Jacoby Ellsbury) came via catcher’s interference and was promptly erased on a double play during a ninth-inning in which Baltimore “closer” Jim Johnson threw 11 pitches.
In the first game on Monday, lest anyone forget, Johnson got through the ninth on just seven offerings, recording the first two outs of that frame on three pitches.
How to make him work, fellas.
Whether Francona can really change any of that is certainly open to debate, and there is every chance he has spoken with players privately, even chewed them out, tried to create some type of spark. Or maybe he just believes that starting pitching is the entire problem. The 2004 Red Sox were a self-policing lot, blessed with a clubhouse full of leaders, and the 2007 Sox were downright professional and workmanlike, cut from the cloth of 1998-2000 Yankees. These Sox seem downright rudderless, players like Ortiz now publicly questioning management decisions, and they have seemed slow to react to a developing crisis.
As manager of the Red Sox, Terry Francona is in the middle of all of that.
The good news, for him, is that it still is not too late.
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