Thursday, September 29, 2011

Choking is putting it mildly

All righty, then, let's dispense with the rating system. I don't know when a team in any sport has choked like this year's Boston Red Sox did.

Ordinarily, I don't like the word -- mainly because I think it does a grave disservice to the other team. Did the 2004 Yankees choke? Or did the Red Sox who beat them seize their opening in a series that turned on a stolen base and a clutch home run? Truth be told, maybe a little of both.

But to chalk it up merely as a "choke" denies the fact the Red Sox also picked themselves up and won the thing.

Ditto the 2007 Patriots. Did they choke? Or did the New York Giants have the personnel -- a huge front four nimble enough to chase Tom Brady around and minimize his pinpoint accuracy -- to match up with them? And was it a choke that David Tyree made that incredibly spectacular (and lucky) reception right before Plaxico Burress caught that touchdown pass? Not really. It was just one of those catches for the ages.

Did the 2010 Bruins choke against the Philadelphia Flyers? Or was that 3-0 series lead in games a tale of incredibly good fortune in the first place?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sports history is full of moments when teams provide an ever-so-slight opening, and their opponents storm down the door.

But this? What we witnessed in the past month? THAT, my friends, was a choke. To choke, you have to lose in the face of overwhelming odds. All other things need to be equal, which his why you can't really call losing a game choking, even if everyone thought you should win it. Anything can happen in a game. Or even in a short series. Sometimes things take on lives of their own.

The Vancouver Canucks probably lost last spring's Stanley Cup final in Game 1, when the referees wouldn't do anything about Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron. That enraged them enough so that when they came back to Boston, after running into some crummy luck up in Vancouver, they ran the Canucks off the ice three times. They put themselves in a position to win it, and that's how it goes sometimes. The Canucks had to scratch and claw to win three games in their own rink, while the Bruins won comfortably all four times. To me, that says the Bruins were simply better and the Canucks, therefore, did not choke.

But going 7-20 in the month of September, and playing yourself from being nine games up in the wild card race -- and even being in first place in the division -- to being bounced from the postseason on the last day of the year -- that's choking.

Another definition of "choke," to me, is that there can be no reasonable excuse for it. None. Recite me a litany of injuries, and I might agree that, yes, it seemed as if every time you looked, some other Red Sox player was missing games because of this ailment or that. Some of them seemed pretty dubious, too, but since it's not my body, and I'm not a doctor, I don't feel especially qualified to make those judgments. But it does seem, on the face of it, that this was not a well-conditioned team.

But injuries or not, if a team that terrorized the Major Leagues from May through August 27 (from the time they started 2-10 to the day they swept the Oakland A's in a day-night doubleheader, they were 80-41, which -- as any baseball fan knows -- is a shade under .667 (.661, to be more precice ... derived from dividing the number of wins by the total number of games played during that stretch).

You could argue that no team -- or few teams, anyway -- could keep that pace all season. The 1998 Yankees, maybe; and the 2001 Seattle Mariners eclipsed it. But as a matter of perspective, if you win 100 games (which a lot of people thought these Red Sox would do) your winning percentage is .617.

So if the Red Sox came back down to earth in September, it would have been easily understood. But OK. Let's say they came back down to earth in a normal way. After that doubleheader, their record was 82-51 (.616). From that point on, they were 8-19 (a woeful .333 for all you statisticians).

If 8-19 had become 13-14 ... not anything to write home about, but certainly not horrible for a team that seemingly had at least a playoff spot wrapped up before Labor Day) ... that would have ended the season with a 95-67 record ... more than enough to have won the wild card, at least, comfortable. All they had to do was play .500.

With that team, and that talent, that shouldn't have been a whole lot to ask. And we'd have all figured that Terry Francona was doing the smart thing, resting players, easing up on the gas a little to save their stamina for what has become an increasingly mind-numbing and grueling post-season.

But apparently it was a whole lot to ask.

There's a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the poem's main character -- an old seaman -- kills the albatross (widely seen as a bird of good fortune) and thereafter bears witness to a chain of horrible events.

I don't know which one of the Red Sox was out shooting birds in late August, but the hideous chain of events that ensued reminds me of that poem. There wasn't a single element of their game, or their team, that escaped unscathed. Their starting pitching was a disaster. Here, one supposes, you could legitimately site injuries and bad luck. We've discussed elsewhere in this blog the effects losing Clay Buchholz had on the rotation.

But it goes deeper. The team made some horrible decisions, such as bringing up an untested rookie and trotting him out there five times while this swoon was gathering momentum. Don Zimmer got crucified in 1978 for pitching Bobby Spowl once., though that could be because Zimmer told her world "the kid has ice water in his veins" right before the Yankees lit him up during the famous Boston Massacre.

But Terry Francona has to account for this. Five times. His record? 0-3. His ERA? 7.66. How many times did he have to trot the kid out there to realize he wasn't ready?

David Ortiz caught all kind of flack for saying that perhaps Alfredo Aceves should get a start instead of the manager trotting this kid out there five times to get belted around like a pinata. I would agree that kind of overt second-guessing is bad form (Bill Belichick would not have been pleased). I would also agree that Ortiz had a point. Saying Aceves was too valuable in the bullpen to spare is little like your boss saying you're too valuable working the night shift to get the promotion you think you deserve. You reward people for performing well, and figure it all out from there.

And Aceves certainly performed well. He's one of the few people on this team who didn't choke.

Ortiz was somewhat of a loose cannon around here this year, and one wonders, even with the decent season he had, whether we've seen the last of him. Is it time to cut ties and move on? Second guessing Francona on his pitching is bad enough. But that stunt he pulled interrupting Francona's press conference to bitch about what he thought was a scoring change that took a hit away form him ... he should have been benched for that. And he wasn't.

And that brings up another point. Francona can safely be called a players' manager. His style is to create a comfortable atmosphere that he feels is conducive to winning. Damage control is a big part of Tito's MO. Whatever goes on behind the scenes, Francona maintains an even strain in public, and his players know they'd have to practically commit an axe murder in the clubhouse before he'd ever call them out to the media.

This is great ... as long as the players respond by respecting the game ... and by winning. The minute that changes, then it's really time to try something else. Francona, I think, was slow to respond to this malaise. There were signs, even as far back as when they were winning, that there were some high maintenance situations that needed to be monitored ... Ortiz being one of them.

The two other principals: John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

What is there left to say about Lackey? Saying he was merely a disappointment is being unnecessarily charitable. He was an anchor that dragged this team down all season. Maybe he shot the albatross.

Bad enough to lose. Bad enough to be hammered night after night. Bad enough that every time he pitched, practically, the team had to come from behind to win. But his total unwillingness to be accountable was astounding. And because of that, Lackey becomes the official poster boy for how arrogant unlikeable this team was as the season progressed.

And just when he did something positive -- albeit holding a junior varsity Yankee team long enough for the Red Sox to win in 14 innings last Sunday -- he ruins the moment by bitching about the TMZ divorce story (after the team asked him not to, by the way). Who needs the Yankees and Rays chasing you when you have such camaraderie in the same room?

Crawford was Exhibit B. I'm tired of hearing how stressed out he was because of the contract. He could have just as easily laughed at his agent and said, "come on, nobody's worth that much money." Nobody held a gun to his head and made hims sign it.

I'll admit I was happy as hell when the Red Sox got him. I still think he's a good ballplayer ... the type of guy the Red Sox have historically eschewed (to their detriment). I figured, hey, with guys like Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury on the team, the Red Sox won't play as much station-to-station baseball, and may be able to stem some slumps by resorting to smallball.

I figure Crawford and Ellsbury gave them two great slump-proof weapons.

Turns out I was half right. Ellsbury was one of the few consistent players on this team from stem-to-stern. I'm afraid the egregious collapse will sour a lot of MVP voters toward him, and if that's the case, it's too bad. Because Ellsbury absolutely had an MVP season, and he can thank his underachieving bonehead teammates for robbing him of what which he truly deserves.

Back to Crawford. Like Lackey, Crawford's disappointing ineptitude was compounded by a few stunts, and a few dubious injuries. Throwing Jason Varitek under the bus after the captain -- apparently -- called him out for sitting out a doubleheader with a stiff neck was perhaps the most gutless thing I've seen on a Red Sox team in many years. I'm sure, at that point, if it wouldn't have cost the Red Sox a king's ransom, they'd have been happy to release his ass right then and there.

Whatever virus it was that infected the pitchers it spared no one. Josh Beckett was lights out all season until he sprained his ankle. Once he returned, he lost his mojo.

Jon Lester, for two years plus, was one of the best pitchers in the game until he strained a lat muscle and had to miss some starts. He was never the same when he got back either. Either both of these guys were hiding much more serious injuries, or they got worn down. And if it's the latter, you have to ask why? And who's fault is it?

Daniel Bard picked a two-week stretch in September to lose his mojo too, and the results were disastrous. He pitches like the Bard of April through August, and this series wouldn't have even mattered. Jonathan Papelbon was having his best year ever ... until September. Then he blew two crucial saves (including Wednesday night's). He saves either of them and, at the very least, we're heading to St. Petersburg today. And did the Red Sox crack medical staff -- the ones who misdiagnosed (or took took too long to properly diagnose) Ellsbury's injury last year and then left him hanging out to dry for not having the requisite amount of balls to play through five broken ribs -- do any kind of background check on Bobby Jenks? What a wasted signing that was.

The whole thing was so out of kilter that even when Francona tried to do the noble thing, trotting out Tim Wakefield so he could get his 200th win, it worked against him and the team. We all love Wake. He's been a loyal soldier forever, and if anyone deserved the milestone, it was him.

But when Wake's knuckleball goes south, it goes all the way to Tierra del Fuego -- which is where it was last seen in August and September.

This is a perfect example of how that cliche that "nobody's bigger than the team" can be true, even if the very thought of saying that makes you sick. Francona became fixated on getting him No. 200, and you have to wonder whether everybody took their eyes off the ball as a result.

But on the other hand, this is what happens when you have nobody who can throw the ball. Relying on Wakefield, a 45-year-old man, in August in September as one of your principal starters is just asking for trouble.

Go right down the line. Adrian Gonzalez? Wha-happened? He was the sweetest looking hitter I've ever seen for four months and then disappeared. And please don't blame the Home Run Derby. It's just another excuse.

The right field situation was a mess from Day One. J.D. Drew was useless and Josh Reddick, while had his moments, certainly wasn't the answer.

Catching? I love Varitek. Next to Carlton Fisk, he's the best catcher they've had in my lifetime. I love the way he played in his prime. Balls to the wall all the time. And he'll always have a special spot in my heart for the mitt-sandwich he fed Alex Rodriguez in 2004.

But he's done. I don't think the Red Sox should just give him a "seeya later." Maybe they should do a Jake Taylor and make him a coach. Maybe he can coach heart, because whatever he lacked in physical skills he more than made up for with guts and determination.

And I'm afraid Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not a first-string catcher. I have no doubt but that he did the best he could. I don't think he laid down like some of the other ones did. But what can you say if a person's best just comes up woefully short a lot of the time?

There are others who are exempt too. Dustin Pedroia may have had his rough spots, but, really, how can you criticize him? The guy's got the pedal to the floor every second he's out there. What's really disturbing about this team is that too many of its players didn't feel ashamed enough by Pedroia's example to get up off their asses and snap out of it.

I'm not a huge Marco Scutaro fan, but you can certainly count him as someone who showed up in September. So basically, by my estimation, you have four guys out of 25 (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Scutaro and Aceves, and if you add Ortiz, who wasn't horrible, make that 4½.) who carried their weight the last month of the season. But it wasn't just their weight they were forced to carry, was it? It was also the dead weight of the other 21 players.

I've saved Kevin Youkilis for last because his situation is, well, complicated. Let me be clear. I'm not his biggest fan. I've always admired him for his all-out style of playing, but even though you could never question his effort or his desire, he's also one of those players prone to lengthy slumps where even I could get him out.

He's also 33, and he's the type of player who's only going to break down more and more often. You can only push yourself so far before your body pushes back, and his body is starting to push. I really question the wisdom of leaving him as the team's only power-hitting every-day right-hander. They just had to know there would be stretches, even if he was healthy, where he'd get worn down from his frenetic style of play and go into long tailspins.

Even when he was healthy, he wasn't having his best season ever, and you have to wonder, going forward, whether we've seen the best of him. My guess is yes.

After having said all this, the collapse of 2011 was -- as the cliche goes -- a total team effort. Outside of the aforementioned four players (maybe five), everybody else needs to step up and be accountable. What happened this month was a inharmonic convergence where the planets just went off in as many different directions as there are players on the team. Each situation took on its own life, and the resulting chain reaction was truly horrific (only in the baseball sense of course).

There was too much bad baseball, and too many bad decisions, and lackluster performances, and underachieving, to call this anything else but what it was: A choke for the ages.

The question is where do we go from here? Well, let's start by gutting the entire coaching staff, manager and all. I think Francona did wonderful things for this team. He was instrumental in changing the entire culture of it for seven years. That's longer than any other manager in my lifetime has done it. But whatever happened, and however it happened, Francona lost this team.

If firing him fair? Of course it's not. But what else can you do in these situations? It isn't as if he'll be collecting unemployment. He'll get a job the second he's let go from this one. He's legitimately earned it.

And I'd also tell Theo Epstein that if he wants to go to Chicago and rebuild the Cubs, go right ahead, and that I'm not going to try and match any offers they give him. Cut him slack for not being clairvoyant enough to realize that Carl Crawford was going to have horrible year and be somewhat of a clubhouse cancer to boot, and you can't really blame him because Gonzalez fell back to earth with a thud. But you can ask him why the pitching staff was so thin, and why signings like Jenks and Dan Wheeler turned out as horribly as they did.

You can also, if you want to quibble, ask him whether, in the long run, it would have been better to keep Jason Bay and forgo signing Lackey (I think we all know the answer to that one), and whether, in the long run, they'd have been better off keeping either Victor Martinez or Adrian Beltre and leaving Gonzalez where he was. That one may be a push, but there's one thing you cannot deny: The Red Sox were easy pickings for even middle-of-the-road lefties down the stretch because with Youkilis out, they didn't have one right-handed hitter who put the fear of God into them.

Yes, it's going to be a very, very interesting off-season, isn't it?

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a Heimlich maneuver that needs to be performed.

1 comment:

Mike H. said...

You're right- Francona's now gone and he says he didn't have the support of all the management. In retrospect, they might have tried too hard to get Wakefield's 200th but most of the player's lacked the "fire in the belly" that other teams like Tampa Bay had. Even Baltimore had more heart/desire to beat the Sox than the Sox had to win. I don't blame Gonzo, but, "God, helps those that help themselves."