Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Theo Epstein's bad personnel decisions caused the Red Sox's historic collapse this season. If anyone should be fired, it's Epstein, not Terry Francona. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

It’s too late to undo firing Terry Francona, a rash decision born from the kind of rabid bloodlust that few fanbases besides Boston’s are capable of. But if John Henry wants to cut out the true cause of the Red Sox’s historic collapse, he needs to go one level higher and axe Theo Epstein.

Player misuse caused by bad lineups, rotation or bullpen order can certainly kill a team, and that’s the manager’s fault. But this Red Sox team had a faulty foundation, and that’s the responsibility of the general manager who built it.

The rotten core that killed this Red Sox team began five years ago, when Epstein signed J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka for big-time bucks. Drew’s pedestrian .264 average, 16 home runs and 57.2 RBIs per season have not been worth the cost, but that’s nothing compared with Matsuzaka. The Japanese so-called superstar was a dud in Boston, failing to contribute anything meaningful from 2009 until Tommy John surgery essentially ended his Boston tenure early this season. On top of that, he became one of the most frustrating, least entertaining pitchers in recent Red Sox history. Fans hated him, and that likely translated into less revenue from him than other pitchers. This is the exact opposite of what Epstein envisioned when he signed Matsuzaka.

Were these the only two bad contracts of the Epstein Era, he keeps his job. But these were just the beginning of a downward trend of spending big money on big games that could never hack it in Boston. For example: the 2010 John Lackey signing – a desperate, panicked attempt to prove to the fans a year after losing Mark Teixeira that Epstein could still attract major talent to as tough a media market as Boston. Lackey didn’t even have a particularly good 2009 (11 wins, fewest since 2003; 3.83 ERA, highest since 2004), but it didn’t matter: Epstein took him and his histrionics anyway. The result? A winning percentage barely above .500 and an ERA over 5.00.

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Longoria, Upton and Kotchman all Homer as Rays Rock Red Sox, Cut Wild Card Lead to 3

Evan Longoria hits a three-run home run during the third inning of Thursday's game at Fenway Park. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

When nothing is going right, nothing is going right. Such was the case Thursday night at Fenway, when a freakish broken-bat grounder led to four runs by the Tampa Bay Rays, who homered three times to beat the Red Sox, 9-2, and cut Boston’s wild card lead to three games.

Broken Bat Ends Up Breaking Weiland

Through two innings, starter Kyle Weiland appeared on his way to at least the first quality start for the Red Sox since Sept. 6, and possibly his first major league win. Weiland retired his first seven batters before giving up a double to catcher John Jaso. Weiland walked Desmond Jennings with two outs, but his inside pitch to B.J. Upton broke Upton’s bat and started rolling towards Marco Scutaro.

The broken bat-head flew in the exact same direction as the grounder, unfortunately, landing in front of Scutaro moments before the ball reached his glove. Scutaro tried to side-step the bat and field the ball, but the two arrived so close that there was nothing Scutaro could do. The ball rolled between his legs, and Jaso scored to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.

Weiland should have been out of the inning, but instead he had to face Evan Longoria. Though Weiland reached two strikes on Longoria, he left a 1-2 pitch over the plate, and Longoria deposited it in the Red Sox bullpen in right-center to make it a 4-0 game.

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Kinsler and Hamilton Each Drive in Three as Rangers Crush Red Sox

Adrian Beltre connects on a single, the 2,000th hit of his career, during the Rangers' seven-run sixth inning of Sunday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

If the Red Sox and Rangers face each other in the playoffs, the scorekeepers had best prepare: there will be runs, and lots of them. Sunday afternoon at Fenway was no exception.

The Rangers banged out 15 hits and 11 runs against John Lackey and the Red Sox bullpen Sunday, winning the game and the series, 11-4.

The Red Sox fell to 1.5 games behind the Yankees, who beat the Blue Jays 9-3 Sunday, in the AL East. They still lead the Rays in the wild card race by eight.

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Sabathia, Yankees Bullpen Strand 16 Red Sox Base Runners

Darnell McDonald throws his bat after striking out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning as Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli pumps his fist during Tuesday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

All good things must come to an end, including CC Sabathia‘s winless streak against the Red Sox this season and Boston’s explosive offense. Sabathia allowed just two earned runs in six innings Tuesday night at Fenway, and the Red Sox left 16 men on base, losing to the Yankees, 5-2. Boston now leads New York by just a half-game in the AL East.

Sabathia Keeps Runs Just Out of Reach

Sabathia lived on the outside corner Tuesday night. Lefty, righty, it didn’t matter: Sabathia pitched just about every batter away. While this generated a lot of base runners – 11 in six innings – it also meant few opportunities for that one big run-scoring hit. Adrian Gonzalez struggled most with this strategy, striking out swinging against Sabathia three times on breaking balls down and away. Gonzalez finished the game 0-5, the only Red Sox starter without a hit.

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Red Sox Risk Little With Bedard and Fields

Erik Bedard didn't cost the Red Sox much, so he doesn't have to do much to make the trade successful. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The Red Sox didn’t make a big splash before the 2011 Trade Deadline. There was no Victor Martinez brought in, no Jason Bay. On the other hand, it’s unlikely the Red Sox traded for the next Eric Gagne, either.

The Red Sox traded for Seattle starter Erik Bedard and right-handed reliever Josh Fields. They in turn had to give up pitchers Juan Rodriguez (a Single-A Greenville pitcher about whom it’s too early to tell) and Stephen Fife (11-4, 3.66 ERA at Double-A Portland), and catcher Tim Federowicz (a .275 hitter with .397 slugging at Portland). Federowicz might have eventually made it to Fenway, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s development this year has solved some of Boston’s catching needs for the immediate future.

In exchange for three minor leaguers, the Red Sox get a decent but not spectacular pitcher in Bedard. Although Bedard is just 4-7, his record has as much to do with Seattle’s league-worst offense as it does Bedard’s pitching. Before injuries killed his last few seasons, Bedard was at least a B+ pitcher. He pitched from 2002 to 2007 with the Orioles, compiling a 40-34 record with a 3.83 ERA. Not bad numbers, especially in the AL East.

Against the AL East (excluding Boston), Bedard is 18-13, although that is helped out greatly by an 11-4 record and 3.41 ERA against the Rays. If Bedard can sustain that level of success, the Red Sox will most likely be satisfied with the trade. Ideally, Bedard provides a stop-gap measure through August that lets the Red Sox ease off Andrew Miller, then maybe takes Tim Wakefield‘s place once Clay Buchholz returns. Miller doesn’t have the consistency yet to be a starter (especially in the playoffs), and Wakefield suddenly has a Pedro Martinez-like pitch limit of about 85 pitches, after which he becomes almost completely useless. A healthy Buchholz and Bedard is the best possible combination of three-four (or three-five, depending on Bedard’s spot in the rotation) pitchers.

Fields was good in Double-A but has struggled in Triple-A. He’s probably not in the Red Sox’s long-term plans unless he dramatically improves. These weren’t the two biggest names out there, but the Red Sox this year brought in relatively cheap talent that shouldn’t hurt the team too badly and might pay dividends.

The Red Sox never did get a right-handed outfielder, and this might anger Red Sox fans. What fans don’t understand is that the Red Sox didn’t need a righty who can platoon in the outfield, starting every game against lefty pitchers. Boston’s starting outfield of Carl Crawford (a career .262 hitter against lefties), Jacoby Ellsbury (.261 this season) and Josh Reddick (.409 this season) can all hit lefties with at least enough success to justify their playing time.

No, what the Red Sox might have needed was a right-handed bench player – ideally one who can play in the outfield – that can pinch-hit against lefty-specialist relievers. So far, Darnell McDonald and his .173 average (.212 vs. lefties), .333 slugging (just three homers and four doubles) and poor base-running has not been that player.

The problem with a player like that is that it’s really easy to over-value him. The Red Sox wanted someone who might very well get just 40 at-bats the rest of the season (maybe even just 30), and there was no way they were going to over-pay for that production. Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence, Cody Ross – these were all players too good for what Boston wanted, so they didn’t bother shredding the farm system to do so.

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League. They have the best offense of either league, and they play better on the road than any other team as well. This last attribute suggests that even if the Red Sox don’t win the AL East, they would still do very well in the playoffs. They didn’t need to add more bats to their lineup; all they really needed was some insurance pitching just in case.

For what the Red Sox had to give up, Bedard and Fields remain low-risk, low-reward trades. Boston didn’t need to add much to continue winning, so they simply didn’t.

Ellsbury Homers Twice in the Heat to Give Red Sox Series Win in Baltimore

Catcher Craig Tatum looks on as Jacoby Ellsbury hits a third-inning solo home run during Wednesday's game in Baltimore. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

It was hot in Baltimore on Wednesday: 92 degrees, with enough humidity and sunshine to make it feel like 100. But not even the high temperatures could match the heat of Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury homered twice Wednesday afternoon, leading the the Red Sox to a 4-0 victory against the Orioles. The win gave Boston its fifth series victory in the row, a 4-2 road trip and a two-game lead in the AL East.

Ellsbury Generates the Power, Rest of Lineup Plays Smallball

Ellsbury broke a 0-0 game in the top of the third, when he took a 1-2 fastball from Orioles starter Jake Arrieta into the right field seats for the solo home run.

The Red Sox went up 2-0 when Josh Reddick (2-3 with a run and a walk) led off the fourth with a single, then took third on a double to deep right from Carl Crawford (2-3 with a walk and a stolen base). Two batters later, Jason Varitek successfully pulled the ball towards second base, grounding out but driving in Reddick.

Ellsbury homered again off Arrieta in the seventh, golfing a low 0-1 change-up to right field to extend Boston’s lead to three. His 15 home runs rank him third on the Red Sox.

The Red Sox tacked on one more smallball run in the eighth, with Crawford drawing a bases-loaded walk off Mark Hendrickson to score Adrian Gonzalez (4-5 with a run).

Dustin Pedroia extended his hitting streak to 18 games in the fifth, hitting a dribbler down the third-base line and beating out the throw for the infield single. Pedroia then stole second base, but advanced no further.

Miller Effectively Wild, Bullpen Wildly Effective

Andrew Miller didn’t exactly command the strike zone in his fifth start for the Red Sox – the heat probably influenced that – but he was good enough to get his fourth win. The ball frequently appeared to slip out of his hand, sailing far to the left. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 12 of the 24 batters he faced, and nine times went to three-ball counts. He walked six batters and struck out just three, throwing only 58 percent of his pitches for strikes. He enjoyed just one 1-2-3 inning (to be fair, Arrieta enjoyed none).

Miller’s wildness, however, might also have kept Orioles hitters out of rhythm. Baltimore managed no runs and just two hits – both singles – off Miller, and the first hit did not come until the fifth inning.

The Orioles best chance to score came in the bottom of the second, when Miller walked the bases loaded with one out. Even then the Orioles could not score, with catcher Craig Tatum grounding into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.

Miller exited with two outs and men on first and second in the bottom of the sixth. On came Matt Albers, and with him Boston’s bullpen domination. Albers needed just two pitches to strand the two base runners and end the inning. He then pitched a perfect seventh, striking out two.

Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon pitched with the same precision (even though it was no longer a save situation), with neither pitcher allowing a base runner in perfect eighth and ninth innings. The trio of pitchers need just 35 pitches – 27 for strikes – to retire the final 10 batters of the game.

Crawford Singles Twice, Drives in One in Return; Red Sox Clobber Orioles Bullpen

Carl Crawford went 2-5 in his return to the Red Sox Monday night in Baltimore and scored two runs, including in the eighth on a 3-RBI double by Darnell McDonald. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Red Sox needed 16 innings to score one run Sunday night in Tampa Bay. Twenty-four hours later in Baltimore, they needed just half that to score 15. Boston broke a 7-7 tie with an eight-run eighth inning, and Carl Crawford returned to the Red Sox with two hits, two runs and an RBI. The Red Sox beat the Orioles, 15-10.

Boston Batters Baltimore Bullpen in Eighth Inning

Both Orioles starter Brad Bergesen and Tim Wakefield dominated at times (Bergesen in the first and second, Wakefield in the third and fourth), but at other times they were anything but, setting up a 7-7 tie heading into the eighth inning. Darnell McDonald drew a pinch-hit walk off reliever Mike Gonzalez, moved to second on a Marco Scutaro single, then to third on a Jacoby Ellsbury walk. Scutaro and Ellsbury saw a combined 17 pitches in their at-bats.

Mark Worrell relieved Gonzalez with one out and the bases loaded, but he fared no better than Gonzalez. Dustin Pedroia bounced a 3-2 pitch off the right-field wall to plate two, then Kevin Youkilis knocked in two more by taking the first pitch he saw back up the middle.

Chris Jakubauskas was brought in to stop the bleeding, but instead he continued Baltimore’s downward slide. Josh Reddick walked on four pitches to re-load the bases, then Crawford singled to right to drive in Adrian Gonzalez, whom Worrell had intentionally walked. McDonald capped the eight-run inning by doubling down the third-base line, clearing the bases and putting the Red Sox up 15-7. The Red Sox sent 12 men to the plate in the eighth and scored 8 runs.

Crawford 2-5 in Return

Crawford entered Monday’s game 4-10 against Bergesen, making Bergesen an excellent pitcher to face in his first game back. Crawford grounded out to second on a 3-2 pitch in the top of the second, but singled up the middle to lead off the fourth. Crawford later scored from second when Scutaro’s grounder went through Orioles first basemen Derrek Lee‘s legs and into right field. The run put the Red Sox up 4-2, and Scutaro would score on an Ellsbury sacrifice fly to make it 5-2.

Crawford showed no problems with base running Monday night, trying to steal second in the top of the fourth on a pitch that Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled, and sprinting down the first-base line in the seventh to try to beat out a soft grounder to second. Crawford was called out on a play that could have gone either way.

Crawford also flew out to center field in the fifth. He caught or fielded every ball hit to left field.

Wakefield Can’t Hold Lead, Bullpen Takes Over

Wakefield recorded the first two outs of the bottom of the first easily, but then gave up back-to-back singles. Lee then took the second pitch he saw to deep center. The hit’s trajectory must have confused Reddick, who took a very poor route to the ball, getting fully turned around before the ball bounced off the wall behind him. Two runs scored, and Lee made it all the way to third.

The Red Sox took the lead back in the top of the third, with Saltalamacchia homering before the Red Sox hit four consecutive singles. Pedroia’s plated Scutaro to tie the game and extend Pedroia’s hitting streak to 16 games, and Gonzalez’s plated Ellsbury (3-4 as a DH with three runs, an RBI and a walk) to put Boston up 3-2. Reddick’s fifth-inning home run extended the lead to 6-2 after Boston’s two-run fourth.

Wakefield was in line for his 199th win, but two-run and solo home runs to J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones in the fifth cut Boston’s lead to one, then DH Nolan Reimold doubled to left with the bases loaded to give the Orioles a 7-6 lead. Wakefield exited the game one out shy of qualifying for the decision. Because of two passed balls by Saltalamacchia, only three of the seven runs Wakefield allowed were earned.

With Wakefield unable to finish the fifth, the Red Sox turned to Dan Wheeler, who rose to the challenge, stranding both inherited base-runners. Wheeler went 2.1 innings and allowed just a walk. He picked up his second win of the season and helped minimize bullpen usage on a night devoid of fresh arms. Mike Gonzalez took the loss, but it was Worrell who allowed all three of Gonzalez’s base-runners to score.

The Red Sox tied the game in the top of seventh when Youkilis singled off Jason Berken to drive in Ellsbury, who had singled off Troy Patton.

Randy Williams struggled through the eighth, giving up three runs on three hits, a walk and a strikeout, but Franklin Morales struck out the side in a perfect ninth to secure the win.