Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fuming Mad

Basically this blog post is going to come across as a total rant and I don't really care. I just watched the Red Sox drop their fifth game out of their last six when there was basically only one of those games that they flat out lost (probably the Sunday night game against the Yankees, but even that one is up for debate). Earlier this month I would have had a hard time believing that the Sox would not have wrapped up the division by Sept. 20. When the club wakes up tomorrow, they will be a scant 1.5 games above New York for the AL East crown and will still need three wins/Tigers losses to get into the playoffs. It feels like this has happened so fast. But the reality is that in a very short period of time the Sox have gone from easily being the league's best team to truly backing into the postseason and scraping just to get into October.

There's not one aspect of this team that can be relied up on right now. Not one. The starting pitching has gone from the best in baseball to iffy as a complete unit. The bullpen has gone from the best in baseball to essentially a bust. Without Ramirez, Youkilis, and Crisp, and with Varitek turning into an automatic K and overuse of Hinske, this Sox offense is as rudderless as any in the majors. One would think that without Manny, Ortiz could still be productive with Lowell hitting cleanup, but unfortunately Lowell has chosen the worst possible time to slump, rendering the fragile Papi punchless (edit: I'm an asshole. Lowell has been doing fine lately. My bad). The defense hasn't been terrible, but they certainly lose something when Hinske has to play and Ellsbury and Crisp aren't both out there. And with Julio Lugo's lack of hustle with the bases loaded in the 7th tonight, I wonder how much some of these guys care.

But the aspect of the team Red Sox fans must have their least amount of faith in lies with the manager. At this blog and my old one, Terry Francona has been the sacred cow. I've barely criticized him for anything over the years, partially because he'll always be the guy that led this team to glory in '04. But I can't possibly overlook his terrible mismanagement of this team over the course of the last six weeks or so, specifically towards the bullpen. I'll get to that later, but first I want to address my difficulty understanding his dealings with a certain injured outfielder.

I don't claim to know how serious Manny's oblique injury was when it first happened. They told us first that Manny would be out for 7-10 days and he's now missed 21 straight games. So I'd like to believe he's legitimately unable to play for this team, but since this is Manny, I have to say I'd like to believe it. There's no telling whether Manny will contribute anything upon returning because this has been one of his least productive seasons ever even when healthy. There is no questioning, however, whether or not Manny's presence in this lineup is important, given the way the team has stopped hitting. Francona has predictably decided to let Manny set his own timetable for a return to play, even though Manny has taken upwards of 40 BP swings on a daily basis for the last week or so. That said, it seems strange that Manny is still too hurt at a time when the team needs him. Manny doesn't exactly have the reputation of being someone who burns to play when he's not at 100% (or even when he is 100%). I'm bringing this up because I believe Francona has become an enabler for Manny to conduct himself in such a way. Would Manny still be watching from the bench if his manager was Jim Leyland? Or Eric Wedge? Or Mike Scioscia? I really don't think so. Francona has become more concerned about saving face with his fading veteran superstar than making sure he's on the field to help the Sox will games. Correction: win a game.

A lot of times in his run as Sox manager, Francona has struggled with his bullpen, mostly because he's been given some terrible bullpens to deal with. In 2007, Francona has been supplied with his best bullpen unit since he arrived, and since the acquisition of Eric Gagne, I have never seen a manager suck this badly at dealing with a bullpen. Even Grady Little was never this bad. First of all, I think there has been an overall mismanagement of the use of Clay Buchholz since his no-hitter. This doesn't rest on the shoulders of Francona alone, instead sharing the blame with Theo Epstein, John Farrell, and other Red Sox development people. I'm all for keeping Buchholz's innings down because there's nothing worse than overworking a talented young pitcher. At the same time, with the struggles of Gagne, Okajima and some other bullpen arms, I don't understand why the Red Sox chose not to utilize Buchholz as a setup man similar to how the Yankees have used Joba Chamberlain to phenomenal success. Instead, between his no-hitter and his shortened start tonight, Buchholz pitched three scoreless innings to get a relief victory in Baltimore on Sept. 6. And that's IT. I can't believe he could not have contributed more to this team than that. Behind Beckett, Schilling and Papelbon, can you make the argument that any other pitcher on this roster is better than Buchholz? Can you?

Hideki Okajima's fairy tale season has truly ended in a Greek tragedy, and I believe there's a chance he could be shut down the rest of the way. He should never have been in that game last Friday. Trading for Gagne has proven to be one of the team's biggest blunders in recent memory. Bringing in Gagne in last night's game, and then not getting anyone up behind him when he completely lost control, was simply mind-boggling. Friday night, Francona threw Papelbon into a bases-loaded situation with terrible results. Five nights later, Francona did THE EXACT SAME THING WITH THE SAME EXACT RESULTS. I came across an amazing stat tonight, courtesy or Papelbon has gotten two doubles plays in 122.2 innings since the start of the 2006 season. Do you mean to tell me Francona doesn't know this? Based on this information, how much sense does it make to ever bring Pap in with men on base and less than two outs? Couldn't anyone play this right with this information?

I'm starting to get tired so I'm not going to say much more. I know that teams that win the Wild Card have won many Series titles recent years, but most of Red Sox Nation will be as fuming mad as I am if the hated Yankees end up with a better record, again. No one wants to back into the playoffs, but the Cardinals certainly backed into the playoffs in 2006 but ended up going all the way. There is still greatness in this Red Sox team. If they can get their walking wounded back, find some effectiveness in those arms, and have their manager grow a brain, I have no doubt the Red Sox can do the same.

If all those things happen, it would make the '04 miracle look like nothing.

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