I can’t blame Red Sox fans for booing Bobby Valentine. But this is way beyond Valentine now.
Valentine is the symbol — the symbol of an arrogant ownership that had all the answers after last September’s collapse, allowing both manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein to depart without a fight.
Valentine is ownership’s choice, not general manager Ben Cherington’s. Valentine is the provocateur who helped botch two games last week and publicly challenged third baseman Kevin Youkilis — acts that the Fenway Faithful have yet to forgive.
Saturday, though, was the symbol of something else.
Not poor managing — allowing left-hander Felix Doubront to pitch one more inning or issuing one fewer intentional walk would have made little difference.
No, Saturday was the symbol of an organization that has made too many poor decisions in recent years, both under Epstein and new GM Ben Cherington. An organization that, for the moment at least, looks downright broken.
It’s always dangerous in baseball to place too much emphasis on one game, and a 4-10 start frankly isn’t much more of a sample. But when a team blows a 9-0 lead and loses 15-9 to the hated Yankees, no one is in the mood for patience or perspective.
Lest anyone forget, the Red Sox had won three straight at the time Valentine made his foolish remark about Youkilis not being as physically and emotionally into the game as he was in the past. Perhaps it’s karma that they’ve lost five straight since, capped off by Saturday’s 15-car pileup.
Cherington, facing little choice, told reporters afterward that he is “very satisfied” with Valentine, that players influence a team’s performance more than the manager.
Five Red Sox relievers sure had some serious influence Saturday, combining to allow 14 runs (13 earned) in 1 2/3 innings for a tidy 70.20 ERA.
“I think we’ve hit bottom,” Valentine said. “That’s what I told (players) after the game. You have to sometimes hit bottom. If this isn’t bottom, we’ll find some new ends to the earth, I guess.”
Let the search party begin.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, designated hitter David Ortiz and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez declined to speak with the media afterward, leaving less prominent players to answer questions. Some might interpret the star players’ actions as a failure to show responsibility, but all three are almost always available and really, there wasn’t much anyone could say.
“It sucked. It sucked,” shortstop Mike Aviles offered. “That’s it. There’s no other way to talk about it. We sucked. It shouldn’t have happened. We should have played better all around. That’s all there really is to say. It wasn’t fun.”
Still, I seriously doubt the Sox will discover “new ends to the earth,” though the postscript to the day, the acquisition of center fielder Marlon Byrd, almost seemed to qualify — Byrd, in 47 plate appearances for the Cubs, batted a mighty .070/.149/.070.
The Sox’s schedule will ease once the Yankees leave town. Right-hander Aaron Cook, pitching at Triple A, and righty Daisuke Matsuzaka, embarking upon a rehabilitation assignment, could join the starting rotation in May. Closer Andrew Bailey and outfielders Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Kalish eventually will return from injuries.
Yet, the Sox would have major issues even if all of those players were currently active. Right-hander Clay Buchholz, one of the team’s top three starters, is out of sorts. Aviles, the ad hoc shortstop, is better cast as a utility man. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia had four hits Saturday — one more than his previous season total — but remains inconsistent both offensively and defensively.
And that bullpen. My goodness.
While the Sox still plan to start right-hander Daniel Bard on Sunday night, neither Valentine nor Cherington ruled out returning him to a late-inning role. At this point, though, would such a move even help? Other relievers still would need to get outs.
To fully understand the disintegration of the Sox’s pitching staff, go back to the latter stages of the Epstein era, when the Sox awarded long-term deals to Matsuzaka and fellow right-handers John Lackey and Josh Beckett.
More than $250 million worth of pitchers, including Matsuzaka’s posting fee, boiled down to two Tommy John surgeries and one bucket of Popeye’s Fried Chicken to go.
Matsuzaka’s contract ends after this season; the Beckett and Lackey deals run through 2014. Those signings, plus the $142 million addition of Crawford, left the Sox with little financial flexibility last offseason. Their payroll is the third-highest in the majors. And now the dominos are starting to fall.
The Sox shouldn’t be faulted for failing to match the Phillies’ excessive $50 million offer for closer Jonathan Papelbon. But they can be faulted for failing to find adequate replacements for both Papelbon and Bard, knowing they intended to make Bard a starter.
Cherington gambled in trading for Bailey, who frequently is injured, and right-hander Mark Melancon, who had achieved success only in the NL. By contrast, the Rangers shifted Neftali Feliz into their rotation after making three moves in 2011 — trading for Mike Adams, shifting Alexi Ogando to a setup role, signing free-agent closer Joe Nathan — to ensure that their bullpen would be sufficiently covered.
Teams prefer to use young, affordable pitchers as starters to maximize their long-term value. But the Red Sox, like the Rangers a year ago, might need to address short-term needs first. The Rangers wanted to make Feliz a starter last season, but kept him as their closer when they lacked better options.
At the moment, the Sox need two of Bard and two of Doubront. And while the team’s owners are quite smart, they have yet to invent cloning.
Call it a crisis. Call it, as Valentine did, “a psychological situation.” Just understand that it’s not a new condition for an organization that, after last September’s collapse, suffered a nervous breakdown.
Valentine is a mere symptom of the madness. The Red Sox have been losing their minds for a while now.