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Boston's prism of failure

10/12/2011

The stories about the Red Sox, told on and off the record, have sounded like the final days of the Roman Empire, with the structure crumbling around inhabitants who are too entrenched in their personal failings to do anything about it. The latest story along these lines comes from Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe today.

It's worth a reminder that if the Red Sox had won one more game, none of this would be discussed. If the Yankees had finished off their first-and-third-and-nobody-out rally against the Rays in extra innings, and if Jonathan Papelbon had closed out the Orioles, Boston would've been propelled into the playoffs and maybe into the World Series. With one more victory and one more Tampa Bay loss, the Red Sox ownership would've been compelled to pick up Francona's contract options.

But the Red Sox lost, and in the wake of their defeat, the weakness of their clubhouse culture has been illuminated. When Francona spoke at his last press conferences about players who weren't pulling together, some folks in the Boston front office were stunned -- angry, even -- because this had not been something that had been raised day after day. In the Boston chain of command, Francona was the guy in charge of the clubhouse, the guy charged with making the initial effort to compel fattened pitchers to do their running. Josh Beckett and John Lackey and Jon Lester put on weight during the season, and if there were red flags to be seen in that, it was Francona's responsibility to be the first responder. And if there was push-back from the players, well, it needed to go up the line.

In a perfect world, however, players paid millions of dollars wouldn't need a baby sitter. Joe Torre led the Yankees to four championships in five years and managed in a style very similar to that of Francona: In general, he was a players' manager, supporting the players in what he said to the media and working to create emotional space for them to do their work under as little duress as possible -- protection from the stress inherent for any player in New York, or Boston, or any other large market. Torre's players responded well to this kind of leadership, as did Francona's players.

But the greatest threats, in a culture built around that kind of approach from the manager, are the players who take advantage of the latitude. This is why Torre couldn't stand David Wells: Torre was appalled that he had to tell Wells, repeatedly, to do the right thing. Torre didn't feel like he should have to tell Wells to get in shape, to act the right way; the manager thought Wells should have the personal integrity to take care of this himself.

Francona presumably has similar feelings. Given that Francona always treated his players with respect, rather than with the in-your-face oversight of a class monitor, he presumably figured that he shouldn't have to tell John Lackey to care about his teammates. But all season, there was Lackey showing up teammates on the field with his body language, and on the last Sunday night of the regular season, there was Lackey sucking the air out of Boston's clubhouse right after an important Red Sox win by berating reporters about a text message he almost certainly knew none of them had sent. In a season apparently filled with selfish acts, it was perhaps the most transparent of selfishness.

And apparently no player was willing to stop it, or had the stature to do so. When the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford and traded for Adrian Gonzalez, they added a couple of veterans with reputations as hard workers -- and the Boston brain trust was convinced that the team's clubhouse culture would be a strength. Dustin Pedroia is a hard worker, and Kevin Youkilis has always cared deeply about his at-bats and the success of the team, and Lester and Beckett had always been great gamers.

But only through the September collapse did the Red Sox learn what they didn't have: that unifying veteran who had the stature and the starch to challenge the other players.

Pedroia is respected for his playing ability and his effort, but he is 5-foot-nothing, and he was not the guy to tell the starting pitchers to do their running. Gonzalez was in his first year with the team, so he couldn't do that. From the start, Crawford had a bad season and had no platform from which to lead -- and in any event, challenging established veterans is not the kind of thing Crawford does. Jason Varitek is from the Derek Jeter School Of Leadership, setting an example to be followed, rather than grabbing others by the lapels and insisting that they change. Youkilis was hurt in September, but even when healthy, he hasn't engendered the kind of necessary respect of other players that is needed to confront them. David Ortiz is much like Francona in his personality: Generous and respectful, he would expect others to do the right thing, rather than telling them to care about winning.

With one more Boston win and one more Tampa Bay loss, this clubhouse void would have never been exposed. But like a marriage that ends in divorce, everything is now viewed through the prism of their failure, and all this will be dealt with by the next general manager -- assuming that Theo Epstein takes the last step in a departure that was taking shape before the September collapse -- and the next manager, and the current owners.

It's important that they understand that folks in their employ have believed in recent years that their focus has changed -- and whether or not that's true, that perception is very dangerous, and needs to be altered.

The Red Sox have enormous resources and a lot of talent on their current roster, and as one member of the organization mused recently, it's not as if the team is far removed from being competitive. But the erosion needs to be fixed.

A final resolution of Epstein's future should be known soon, writes Peter Abraham.

Tigers-Rangers

The Tigers' injury situation is "weird," Miguel Cabrera said at his locker late Tuesday night, after Detroit won Game 3. But then Cabrera said forcefully that he thinks Delmon Young will play today, and that Victor Martinez will play today; with a small smile, Cabrera acknowledged that he was thinking good thoughts.

They need those, and more superlative starting pitching, the kind that Doug Fister provided. Detroit's lineup is completely decimated by injuries, with Brennan Boesch and Magglio Ordonez and Young and now Martinez all impacted, and day by day, the on-paper strength of the Tigers' lineup fades.

But with seven more wins over the next two-and-a-half weeks, the Tigers would win the World Series; if they manage to do that, manage to pull it off, they will rank with the 1988 Dodgers as one of the more improbable champions.

From ESPN Stats & Information, how Fister won:

A. Fister struggled in the first two innings with leaving the ball up, allowing two of four hits. For the remainder of the game, Fister threw 18 pitches up (3.5 per inning) and the Rangers went 1-for-5 in at-bats ending with a pitch up.

B. When Fister kept the ball down, the Rangers had little success. Fister threw 32 pitches below the belt (21 out of the zone) and the Rangers went 1-for-8. Since the beginning of September, opponents are hitting .089 (4-for-45) with 17 strikeouts versus Fister in at-bats ending with a pitch down.

Fister, since Sept. 1, in at-bats ending with a pitch down:

BA -- .089

OPS -- .235

Miss percent --30.0

Chase percent -- 37.3

Strikeouts -- 17

From ESPN Stats & Info, how Cabrera thrived: In the first and third innings, Colby Lewis followed a similar pitch sequence to get a strikeout and groundout versus Miguel Cabrera. In both at-bats, Lewis went fastball all the way until getting to two strikes, when he threw in his slider. But in Cabrera's third at-bat in the fifth inning, Cabrera sat on a slider and found another fastball instead, hitting a game-tying double that scored Austin Jackson.

While Lewis stayed away from Cabrera with two-strike pitches, Koji Uehara pitched Cabrera inside in the seventh inning when Cabrera took him deep. While it was a different strategy than Lewis', it didn't serve Uehara well because Cabrera hit .388 with 16 home runs in the regular season on pitches inside. Against the Rangers this season, Cabrera is 10-for-20 with six extra-base hits.

And today will be better than yesterday.