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Epstein's blunders paved way for Boston's collapse

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

It is difficult to figure out the proper spelling of how a choke sounds. Is it ggggaaahhh? Or ccccccchhhhh? Maybe aaaaaack? In lieu of a proper answer, perhaps it's best to go with something anyone can spell and on which everyone should agree: B-O-S-T-O-N.

Now, the Boston Red Sox's calamitous fall from American League East leaders to all-time artistes de gag remains far from complete. After losing their third game in four days against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, the Red Sox's lead for the AL wild card stands at two games with 10 left. It's a significant margin for a team that finishes with seven of those 10 against the woeful Baltimore Orioles. That makes it no less frightening.

These are not the Red Sox who between April 16 and Aug. 9 won 70 of 103 games. It's a notable achievement, a .680 winning percentage, the domain of greatness. The last team with such a 103-game stretch was the 2009 New York Yankees. They won the World Series. The team before was the 2006 Detroit Tigers. They made the World Series. Same with the 2004 Cardinals. Since the 1994 strike, a dozen teams have gone on a 70-33 jag. None has missed the playoffs.

What's different isn't a matter of heart or will or desire or want-to or any of the things that play so well on Boston talk radio. The Red Sox are choking because they are being outplayed, just like they were outplayed when they started the season 2-10 and sent the city into a panic, and they are being outplayed because that happens to even the best teams. It's not a single, drastic failure as much as it is a compendium of little failures snowballing into an Indiana Jones-sized boulder of destruction.

Sure, some are more culpable than others. When a contending team coming off its worst weekend of the year heads directly to a doubleheader with the first half started by a rookie with a 7.58 ERA and the second half in the hands of a veteran with a 6.19 ERA, that's not bad luck. It's mismanagement. And for the first time in his career …

1. Theo Epstein is facing criticism – all of it justified – for leaving his franchise shorthanded in the throes of a playoff race.

It is very simple: No team with the ability to spend $170 million on its payroll should be starting Kyle Weiland(notes) in September. Period. Weiland is the rookie starting the first game Monday against Baltimore. He has allowed 34 baserunners in 19 innings while striking out six. He may be good someday. He may see the criticism descending on him now and throw a gem. Just like good teams can lose, bad pitchers can win.

Weiland simply represents a systematic failure in what to this point has been a peerlessly managed team. Epstein has run the Red Sox with efficiency and intelligence during his nine seasons as general manager. Which makes this all the more distressing for diehards and pink-hats alike.

It's easy to second-guess Epstein when Kevin Millwood(notes), who left the Red Sox's Triple-A affiliate to sign with the Colorado Rockies the day Boston's phenomenal stretch ended, has thrown well for a non-contender. Millwood wanted to pitch in the major leagues; Epstein never afforded him that opportunity.

Millwood's stuff, according to scouts who saw him, wasn't anything special, and between that and the Erik Bedard(notes) trade seeming to fortify Boston's rotation, the Millwood snub seemed understandable. Now it looks shortsighted, especially with the eminently optionable Randy Williams(notes) on the roster at the time.

With no safety valve, the Red Sox turn to Weiland and the man who takes the cake for the worst blunder of Epstein's career, the inimitable …

2. John Lackey(notes) and his scowl of doom. If the Red Sox do blow this lead, they might as well put billboards of the Lackey Face around town with the slogan: "The 2012 Red Sox: Only three more years of this!"

Hey, let's play a game.

G IP H BB K HR HBP ERA
Pitcher A 26 149 2/3 187 51 101 20 19 6.19
Pitcher B 27 145 2/3 182 30 75 23 12 5.00

Pitcher A, as you might know, is John Lackey this season. Pitcher B, as only the most macabre Yankees fans would, is Carl Pavano(notes) from 2005-08.

Boston can look at this two ways. One is that at least Lackey has time to salvage his five-year, $82.5 million deal after a mediocre first year and abysmal second. The other is that his numbers this year are awfully close to Pavano's and LOL SMH.

If only Lackey were the worst contract on the Red Sox. No, that honor goes to …

3. Carl Crawford(notes), a very good player who got paid like a great one. Boston anted up seven years and $142 million last offseason to secure a left fielder who never hit 20 home runs, whose greatest asset (his speed) was sure to decline because of age and wear from years on artificial turf, whose walk rate even in its best season ranked 108th of the 154 hitters who qualified for the batting title.

Crawford bats seventh for the Red Sox these days. He's hitting .255, and his on-base percentage has not once this season cracked .300. He has stolen one base in September and 18 for the season; his previous career low was 25, when he missed nearly one-third of 2008 with injuries.

There may be an explanation for this. Boston's center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury(notes), struggled to stay healthy in 2010 and struggled even worse when he played. He healed up, and he's a legitimate MVP candidate this season. Lingering injuries do that, and if this is a remnant from the hamstring strain that sent him to the disabled list in June, that makes sense. Otherwise, it's going to be a long six years in Boston, ones that almost certainly he won't see in full.

Crawford is lucky the offense has been so good. The Red Sox rank first in baseball in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage this season, and …

4. Dustin Pedroia(notes) is the electron that balances them. So for him to go all valence in September – he's hitting .215/.235/.415 in the month after coming in at .308/.397/.470 – isn't exactly helping.

Enough remains in the lineup to mask Pedroia's difficulties. From Ellsbury (.358/.413/.642) to Adrian Gonzalez(notes) (.275/.435/.542) to Marco Scutaro(notes) (.385/.424/.558), the firepower hasn't left. The pitching is the problem, and for …

5. Jon Lester(notes) to put up back-to-back stinkers in his last two starts against the Rays is an absolute sin knowing what stands behind him in the Red Sox's rotation.

Lester is putting up a typical Lester season: around 200 innings, an ERA a little over 3.00, lots of strikeouts, too many walks. If he's not an ace, he's at the top of the next category. And those are the pitchers on whom teams rely to stop skids.

On Sept. 11, Lester threw 111 pitches in four innings and left Boston's bullpen to rot. Six days later, his pitch efficiency improved but the results didn't: four runs in seven innings in one of his worst starts of the year, and certainly the least timely. The Red Sox had a chance to force, at worst, a series split and exit the series where they started: a comfortable four games ahead. Instead, they lost Lester's game 4-3, then Sunday's 8-5, and now they've got the Weiland-Lackey dynamite duo followed by …

6. Erik Bedard trying to return from an injury. Stop us if you've heard that one before.

Bedard last pitched Sept. 3. An injured lat and sore knee sidelined him. Bedard had been solid enough in five Red Sox starts, averaging a little more than five innings with a 3.66 ERA. He was striking out a hitter an inning. He was better than Rich Harden(notes), whom the Red Sox originally traded for at the deadline, and has a 5.08 ERA since July 31 in the pitching haven of Oakland. He was Erik Bedard: good when healthy.

Then Bedard got unhealthy, and the yang, as it always does, very quickly overwhelmed the yin. As uncomfortable as it is sending Weiland and Lackey to the mound Monday, parlaying them with Bedard on Tuesday is the sort of bet a stupendously drunk person places. Maybe that's a perfect motto for …

7. Terry Francona: Managing like a drunk person. Actually, of all those to whom fault spreads – and it's doing so like "Contagion" – Francona doesn't deserve nearly as much as he's getting and will get should this continue.

The old adage is true: Baseball managers get too much credit when they win and too much blame when they lose. Francona manages a group of grown men. There is only so much he can do to motivate them. Ultimately, their performances dictate the team's success. Football coaches break down film to exploit weaknesses. Basketball coaches draw up plays to flummox the opponent. In baseball, there is only so much strategizing a manager can do.

Francona is working with a flawed pitching staff, and that's enough to make any manager look like he's lost a team. That hasn't happened. In fact, if the Red Sox hang on to make the postseason, one of the consuming storylines will be how Terry Francona held his team together in its most dire times, how he did so without …

8. Kevin Youkilis(notes) and Clay Buchholz(notes) and J.D. Drew(notes) and Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) and Bobby Jenks(notes), their walking wounded. The last four haven't played in months. Youkilis tried to gut his way through injuries in September only to hit .167 and slug .222 over 36 at-bats.

Yes, injuries happen to every team. They're no excuse. Discounting them, on the other hand, is every bit the equal-and-opposite copout. If the Red Sox stayed healthy like the Yankees', Tigers', Rangers' and Rays' rotations, they'd look like this:

No. 1: Jon Lester
No. 2: Josh Beckett(notes)
No. 3: Clay Buchholz
No. 4: Erik Bedard
No. 5: Daisuke Matsuzaka/John Lackey

Instead, they've started Tim Wakefield(notes) 22 times, Andrew Miller(notes) a dozen and are about to give …

9. Kyle Weiland his fifth start. Weiland, in many ways, has become the unwitting face of Boston's collapse – and, to a lesser extent, that of Boston's cratering farm system. The trade for Gonzalez over the winter left it thin, and poor performances from a number of Boston's top pitching prospects – most of whom were signed for greater than slot money, one of the Red Sox's inherent advantages they've used to tremendous success in the past – meant calling upon Weiland instead of a top prospect with proper seasoning and pedigree.

When he made his first start for the Red Sox on July 10, they held a one-game lead in the East. Upon his return in September, Boston had frittered away its advantage and grew to depend on a 24-year-old with a dozen major league innings to prevent the team from one of the game's all-time epic collapses.

On Monday afternoon, he can become a hero just as quickly as he transmogrified into a goat. Weiland's fastball is a tick above average velocity, his curveball can be a good pitch and he throws a mediocre cutter and changeup. The Orioles should be able to hit him just as they ought Lackey.

And yet what seems to make sense in the end might not actually come off that way, a lesson …

10. Theo Epstein learned in the past and is experiencing again this season. Epstein once told me his goal is to make the postseason seven of every 10 years and hope the team gets lucky enough to win one or two. In his eight full years, Epstein's Red Sox have six playoff appearances.

To get a seventh will take 10 games unlike the previous 10, in which they've gone 2-8. On Sept. 2, the Red Sox held a 9½-game lead on Tampa Bay. A little more than two weeks later, it's down to two.

It would be one of the more remarkable chokes in sports history. Not as bad as the Yankees dropping four straight to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS, but certainly right alongside the 2007 Mets giving up a seven-game lead against Philadelphia over the final 16 games and the '64 Phillies squandering a 6½-game lead with 13 left or the '95 Angels blowing a 9½-game lead Aug. 20.

The Rays head to New York for four games against the Yankees (whom they've beaten five of 11 times this year), then return to Tropicana Field for three with Toronto and three more with the Yankees. The playoff odds at Coolstandings.com still have the Rays with just an 8.6 percent chance of making the playoffs.

No mathematical permutation accounts for the damage this choke has done not just to Boston's lead but its psyche. Just how real that is – and whether, in the end, it manifests any more than it already might have – will reveal itself over the next week and a half.

The chicken bone is halfway down the Red Sox's throat. A couple good coughs and it'll be nothing more than expectorate worth forgetting, just another blip on their way to a playoff series that emphasizes top-of-the-line pitching, booming offense and stellar defense, all of which they've got in abundance.

A few more losses and it may be too late for the Heimlich or CPR. They'll just be the 2011 Boston Red Sox, legends whose season takes but three words to describe: ggggaaahhh, ccccccchhhhh, aaaaaack.

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