Red Sox’s failings not Francona’s fault

It’s not remotely fair, but Red Sox manager Terry Francona is in trouble.

His fate hardly is sealed — the Red Sox, pathetic as they look, remain talented enough to reach the World Series.

But if the Sox complete this historic collapse — heck, even if they flop in the postseason — someone likely will pay.

Francona, who is unsigned for next season, would be the most convenient target.

The manager always is.

The Red Sox, thanks in large part to a third straight shoddy performance by left-hander Jon Lester, looked like a dead team walking Sunday in a 9-1 loss to the Yankees.

How bad is it?

“You’ve got to laugh just to see if you can fool somebody,” designated hitter David Ortiz said.

The Red Sox lead the Rays for the AL wild card by 1-1/2 games. The race could be tied after Sunday if the Sox lose a doubleheader to the Yankees and the Rays beat the Blue Jays. The Sox also could clinch at least a tie for the wild card if they sweep the Yankees and the Jays beat the Rays.

If the Sox get in, you wonder if they even would celebrate. And if Francona’s position would be any more stable.

This is Francona’s eighth season with the Red Sox. He has won two World Series — the Sox’s first two since 1918 — and led the team to the playoffs five times. But ask Joe Torre. No manager enjoys lifetime security.

Truth be told, Francona probably did not expect to last this long in the volatile Boston market. And now, amid the wreckage of a team with a $161 million Opening Day payroll and outrageously high expectations, his tenure simply might be running its course.

General manager Theo Epstein deserves greater blame for the Sox’s current state, but frankly I’m not sure any one person is truly at fault. The Red Sox at this moment are a collective failure — and that includes the players, some of whom evidently believed that you make the playoffs just by showing up.

Yes, some of Epstein’s free-agent choices look terrible. Yes, he failed to build adequate pitching depth. But did anyone seriously think left fielder Carl Crawford or even right-hander John Lackey would be this bad? And at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, did anyone think the Sox’s rotation would prove this vulnerable?

If the Sox’s season ends in disappointment, I’ll be tempted to say it was just one of those years. But it’s doubtful the owners of the Red Sox would agree, and if you believe what Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons said in a radio interview with Dan Patrick this week, Epstein might not agree, either.

Gammons, who is known to be close to Epstein, told Patrick that he sensed “an increasing disconnect” with Francona. Epstein swiftly and strongly denied that account, saying there was no disconnect and that he and Francona were on the same page.

To be sure, there are few signs of outward tension between the two. I was alone at one point with Epstein and Francona in the visiting manager’s office at Yankee Stadium on Friday. Epstein said in Francona’s presence that things were fine, then joked with a smile, “That’s what I say when he’s in the room.” It’s doubtful Epstein would make a remark like that if the relationship truly was strained.

Then again, how is Francona supposed to know exactly where he stands? The Red Sox have yet to exercise their club option on him for next season. At least one member of the team’s ownership group — club president Larry Lucchino — is famously demanding. Gammons’ comment, even if it was as wrong as Epstein suggested, had to be unsettling to the manager.

Epstein, of course, might himself want out if the season ends in ugly fashion; the Cubs’ GM position is open, and Epstein has not denied interest in the job. No one knows if the Red Sox would allow Epstein to interview with the Cubs; he has a year left on his contract. One rival executive predicts that the Sox won’t let Epstein leave — they’re going to want him to clean up this mess instead.

Francona could be the scapegoat under that scenario, but I defy anyone to give a precise account of his failings. It’s not Francona’s fault that players such as first baseman Kevin Youkilis and right-hander Clay Buchholz got hurt. It’s not his fault that Crawford, Lackey and now Lester are underperforming.

Should Francona have moved right-hander Alfredo Aceves into the rotation? Perhaps. But really, does anyone think such that keeping Aceves in the bullpen is the difference in the Sox’s season?

As one Francona supporter notes, the Twins might lose 100 games with a $113 million payroll and yet their manager, Ron Gardenhire, is not in the least bit of trouble. But ask Grady Little. Things can change quickly in Boston.

Francona knew what he was getting into — the Sox hired him only because Little screwed up Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Yet that doesn’t make any of this easier.

Over the years, Francona has taken countless bullets for his players, endured internal and external second-guessing, tolerated bitching and moaning in his own clubhouse, not to mention Manny Ramirez.

The last Red Sox manager to stay on the job for four-plus seasons was Joe Cronin from 1935 to ’47. Francona has exceeded his life expectancy, and then some.

But if this is indeed the end, good luck to the Red Sox finding someone better.