Columns & Blogs

Soft Red Sox wearing thin as playoffs approach

When I watched Boston and Philadelphia in a spring training game in March in Fort Myers, Fla., there was a perception that these were the teams we were going to see in the World Series.

Forget it. The Phillies probably will be there, but the Red Sox are struggling to the October playoffs.

Tampa Bay, with a payroll $120 million less than Boston, and arguably the best manager in the game (Joe Maddon), has been closing in on the Red Sox in the wild-card race for the fourth playoff berth in the American League.

On Sept. 1, Boston, boasting the best record in the AL, was a couple of games up on the New York Yankees and held a nine-game lead over Tampa in the wild-card race.

At this point there was a media debate on which strategy to pursue en route to the post season:

a) Go all out to beat the Yankees, win the AL East and earn home-field advantage in the playoffs.

(b) Start resting players in order to have everyone at their best for a run to the World Series, even if it means settling for wild card.

Boston manager Terry Francona, always a big advocate of "rest," chose plan B. He didn't start his best players every game and had starting pitchers "skipping a turn" even though the Red Sox are short in that department.

The result: the Red Sox have lost 10 of their last 13. The Yankees have opened up a four-game lead in the AL East, and Tampa Bay is within four games of the Bosox in the wild-card race. Tonight, the teams start a four-game series at Fenway Park.

With a favorable schedule, it is likely Boston will hold on and make the postseason. But that is not the big question.

The real issue is: why did it come down to this? Red Sox management will play the injury card. That's what they said last year when the Sox failed to make the playoffs. It's the same excuse they used in 2009 when they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Angels, three games to none.

I don't buy it. Every team suffers through injuries. If the Red Sox have more than other teams for three straight seasons, maybe it has something to do with conditioning (or lack of same).

Boston fans have nicknamed Francona "Cuddles" because of his soft approach with the players. His low-key style has produced two World Series titles, but only once in his eight years has his team won the AL East title. During that span, the arch-rival Yankees have won four times and look to be headed to No. 5 this month.

This does not set well with many Boston fans who consider it a disappointing season if the hated Yankees finish ahead of their beloved Red Sox.

Tito runs a country club-style spring training. The regulars play three or four innings and head to the golf course or beach. Starting pitchers are required to throw only a couple of innings in early March and only five at tops the final week of spring training.

Work on fundamentals like bunting and fielding are not a priority.

This season the Sox opened with six straight losses and a 2-10 record the first two weeks in April.

Francona loves to give his top players a day off and feels that if he gets six innings out of his starting pitcher it is "a very good outing." Most good managers think in terms of seven or eight innings.

The Boston pitching staff has only two complete games this season. By comparison, Tampa's Maddon has let his pitchers go nine innings 15 times. Philadelphia has 17 complete games.

I concede that pitching nine innings is out of vogue these days, but two complete games over an entire season is symptomatic of a serious deficiency.

If the Red Sox manage to stumble into the postseason, Francona's approach will lead to a quick exit, no matter who is the first-round opponent.

After watching Bill Belichick's New England Patriots run the Miami Dolphins ragged Monday night, I have a suggestion for Red Sox management. Hire neighbor Belichick next spring for six weeks and put him in charge of conditioning.

Bet he'd have the Sox players in tip top shape on April 1 ... and perhaps less prone to injuries.