Collapse reminds BoSox fans of old days

BY foxsports • September 29, 2011

Before David Ortiz, the Monster Seats, and “Sweet Caroline,” the Boston Red Sox were known for chokes, curses and cataclysmic failures.

There was Enos Slaughter’s mad dash in 1946 and the one-game playoff against the Indians in 1948. There were the two losses at Yankee Stadium on the final weekend of 1949 as a one-game lead morphed into a one-game deficit. Bucky Dent in 1978. Bill Buckner in 1986. Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in too long in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The identity of the organization — and maybe all of New England — changed in 2004, the year of Dave Roberts’ stolen base, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, and Boston’s first title in 86 years. Another championship followed three years later, raising the self-satisfaction of Red Sox Nation to an all-time high. In many ways, the Red Sox became the pre-eminent organization of the last decade. And their fans drank it up.

Satiation has followed the success, and now there is a limit to how miserable any Red Sox fan can feel about his or her team’s misfortune. But that boundary was tested Wednesday night in a way that it had not been at any moment in nearly a decade, as the Red Sox wrote an improbable postscript to their history of woe.

They gave away a game they couldn’t afford to lose — against the last-place Baltimore Orioles, no less — while the upstart Tampa Bay Rays rallied to win after trailing the New York Yankees by seven runs.

At the start of September, the Red Sox had a nine-game lead in the American League wild-card standings.

At the start of October, they are left to explain how every last inch of it slipped away.

“This is one for the ages, isn’t it?” observed Theo Epstein, who was a Red Sox fan before he became the Red Sox general manager. “With what was going on in those two games and how poorly we played in September. We can’t sugarcoat this. This is awful. And we did it to ourselves. We put ourselves in position for a crazy night like this to end our season.

“It shouldn’t have been this way — 7-20 in September. We go 9-18, we’re where we want to be — 9-18 is, what, winning a third of your games? The worst teams in baseball win a third of their games.”

Epstein acknowledged that this was the most disappointing end to a Red Sox season since Aaron Boone vs. Tim Wakefield in 2003. And let’s not forget how the organization responded to that failure: They fired the manager, Little, placed Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, tried to trade for Alex Rodriguez (and Magglio Ordonez), acquired Schilling from Arizona and spent lavishly on free-agent closer Keith Foulke.

Translation: This is not going to be a peaceful winter in New England.

The Red Sox have missed the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in Epstein’s tenure as GM. And Theo sounds like a man who is prepared to make major changes.

“We can’t deny this month happened,” he said. “Just because it was preceded by four months of being the best team in baseball doesn’t mean September didn’t happen.

“Everything that’s not right, we have to fix. That includes the whole organization. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that you can’t look the other way. If there’s anything not exactly the way you want it, you have to address it now. That process is going to be difficult, but it’s something we have to do.”

Epstein was candid but avoided blaming anyone by name in speaking with the media in the aftermath of Wednesday’s loss. Still, the “address it now” doctrine could have particular relevance to the future of manager Terry Francona.'s Ken Rosenthal reported Thursday night that, according to major league sources, Francona will meet with Red Sox management on Friday morning, and the expected resolution is that he no longer will be the manager.

Francona was the man Epstein hired to succeed Little after the ’03 heartbreak, and his tenure with the team has been one of unprecedented on- and off-field success. For years, he has shepherded players through the scrutiny of playing in Boston, while blending his background as a former major leaguer with knowledge of sabermetric principles. It has been, all things considered, a very good marriage.

But as with Joe Torre in New York, sometimes change happens no matter how logical the pairing between manager and organization may be — particularly when the money and stakes are this big.

Francona isn’t signed for next season — the Red Sox hold club options for 2012 and 2013 — and there was a hint of finality as he walked through the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards early Thursday morning.

Within 20 minutes of the last pitch, he had changed out of his Red Sox uniform for perhaps the final time. He wore an Oxford shirt and blue jeans, can of Coors Light in hand. Francona shook the hand of closer Jonathan Papelbon, who still seemed dazed by the finality of the season-ending blown save, and then shared a quiet conversation with catcher Jason Varitek.

Papelbon is a free agent. So is Varitek. And so, in a sense, is Francona.

But if not Francona, then who is the best man to lead the Red Sox? Last year, not this year, was the trendy time to look for a new manager. This probably isn’t a job for a first-time manager, and some of the experienced managers who fit the Red Sox mold (Bob Melvin, Eric Wedge) took new jobs elsewhere within the last year.

Given the magnitude of the disappointment, at least some change on the coaching staff is probably inevitable. Curt Young, the first-year pitching coach, is one potential casualty. Young has a more hands-off approach than John Farrell, his popular predecessor, and the results suggest the pitchers didn’t respond well to his instruction.

Despite a decrease in run scoring throughout the major leagues, Boston’s staff ERA actually went up (slightly) from last year to this year. Of greater significance, the margin by which the Red Sox ERA exceeded the AL average doubled from 2010 to 2011.

When asked to pinpoint a reason for the collapse, Epstein said, “We’ll get into that some other time. Obviously, we didn’t play good baseball. The pitching led the way, as far as not playing well.”

Not exactly a vote of confidence.

The irony, of course, is that Epstein has as much explaining to do as anyone else. He is under contract for next year, and there is every reason to believe he will be back. But this is not going to be a pleasant job. Of his two big-ticket acquisitions last offseason, Adrian Gonzalez had a strong debut season in Boston but Carl Crawford most certainly did not.

Crawford and starting pitchers John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka have underperformed so badly that it will be difficult to trade them. The farm system revealed itself to be thinner than the Red Sox would like us to believe — when the team needed pitching, there was none to take — and so Epstein may need to ask his bosses for permission to spend even more money in order to address the roster’s deficiencies. But that sounds like something the ’01 or ’02 Yankees might have done, rather than the player development engine that Epstein envisioned.

However Epstein does it, the offseason shopping list must begin and end with pitching — as it did with Schilling and Foulke eight years ago. Papelbon had an excellent season, Wednesday’s implosion notwithstanding, and there will be intense pressure on Epstein to meet his price in free agency, because it doesn’t appear that Daniel Bard is ready to handle the ninth inning. The rotation must be upgraded, too, but I’m not sure that top free agent C.J. Wilson is the answer.

As one long night turned into the start of an interminable offseason, the only thing that seemed certain was the inevitability of change. Big, urgent, and perhaps impulsive change — the way it always used to be when Red Sox hearts were broken.

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