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Baseball Today: Thursday, September 20 »
September 19, 2007
BY ART MARTONE
Journal Sports Editor
If your travels took you out of range of sports talk radio yesterday — any sports talk radio, anywhere in New England — allow me to provide this public service. The focus could be summed up in two words:
With “Terry Francona, Managerial Decisions Of” as a prominent subtext.
And that’s understandable because, on the face of it, Francona’s decision to stick with Gagne during the Blue Jays’ three-run rally in the eighth inning Tuesday night was indefensible. The game passed approximately three checkpoints where the call could have gone to Jonathan Papelbon for a four-out save, and Francona ignored all of them. His explanation afterwards — “That’s (Gagne’s) inning to get out of. There are a lot of long-term reasons to keep him out there and have success.’’ — rang hallow with much of the fan base, since this isn’t a long-term time of year.
Or is it? Are the advantages of finishing first so overwhelming that it’s worth a pedal-to-the-metal push to make sure it happens, consequences be damned?
History tells us no. It’s not that finishing first wouldn’t be a good thing, or that there are no benefits. But if the choice is finishing first, or making sure players are as healthy as they can be / pitching rotation is in order / bullpen usage is set heading into the postseason, it’s obvious Francona — and, presumably, the Red Sox brass — feels the latter outweighs the former.
Start with the assumption the Sox are a lock for the postseason. Barring a never-before-seen collapse, that’s true. Their magic number for clinching a playoff spot is three if the Sox lose, two if they win. They should have their ticket to the dance punched before the weekend is over.
In that light, Francona’s decisions become more understandable. Were the season actually on the line, Coco Crisp would probably have started last night. Kevin Youkilis might have. David Ortiz wouldn’t be getting a day off tomorrow in Tampa Bay, as he’s been promised. Even Manny Ramirez might feel more a tad more urgency to get back into the lineup, though trying to guess along with Manny Ramirez is truly a fool’s errand.
Some, however, feel the season is on the line. The Red Sox have led the A.L. East — and by a pretty overwhelming margin most of the way — since late April. Losing the division title, and to the Yankees to boot, would make the whole thing a failure to these folks, wild card or no wild card. The time for rest is over, they say. Get out there. Now.
But to what end? All of these players — and more that we don’t know of, probably — are hurting. Playing through pain is an admirable trait as far as sports fans are concerned, but it’s not conducive to healing. If time off now means they’ll be healthier, even if just a little bit, in two weeks when the playoffs start, is that a fair trade?
Francona thinks it is.
The all-but-clinched playoff spot gives him that luxury. That’s why Clay Buchholz pitched last night: So that Daisuke Matzusaka and Curt Schilling got a little extra time off heading into the postseason. And why Gagne was left out to dry Tuesday night: So the Sox can determine if he’s ever going to be the eighth-inning bridge to Papelbon they envisioned he’d be when they traded for him.
What you surrender when you play it like this is short-term success, which may cost the Sox the division championship. It probably won’t — they’re still in good shape as the season nears the wire — but it could. What that means, in concrete terms, is that it would also cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs.
But in 2006, the teams without home-field advantage won six of the seven postseason series. According to ESPN, teams with the home-field edge have won only 54% of the time since the playoff system was instituted in 1969. And we don’t have to recite the list of wild-card teams — ’06 Cardinals, ’04 Red Sox, ’03 Marlins, ’02 Angels, ’97 Marlins — that have won the World Series, do we?
The Sox’ position: The advantage of that extra home game won’t mean anything if the team isn’t in the best possible condition to play it. So quietly and without fanfare, they’ve made it clear through their actions that getting their team into the best possible condition — and not necessarily finishing ahead of the Yankees — is priority one.
Maybe you agree with that; maybe you don’t. If you’re a Red Sox fan and there’s an insufferable Yankee follower crowing in your ear about a typical Boston collapse, you definitely don’t.
Doesn’t matter. That’s the path they’ve chosen.
Posted by Art Martone at 6:33 PM | Permalink
Nashau | September 20, 2007 4:08 AM link