The manager is always an easy target when trying to finger where things failed, and he practically becomes a fish making inauspicious laps around the inside of a barrel when peering through a viewfinder that shows everything in hindsight.
When Evan Longoria launches a three-run homer to tie the game, it's easy to ask why the Red Sox didn't walk him intentionally. When Stephen Drew doesn't deliver against a lefty, it's easy to ask why Xander Bogaerts didn't get a chance to bat. When Quintin Berry replaces David Ortiz as a pinch-runner, even if he, ahem, "steals" second base, it's easy to wonder about the wisdom of that maneuver when Ortiz's spot in the order comes up with the go-ahead run on third base in the ninth inning.
But apparently it's just as easy to forget that no matter what decision the manager makes, right or wrong, it's ultimately up to the players to do their jobs -- and for that reason it's more the fault of his charges than it is John Farrell that the Red Sox are forced to play a fourth game of their American League Division Series rather than relaxing while the Tigers and A's continue to tussle.
Regardless of what Farrell might've done in the first real playoff test of his managerial career, none of his choices were so egregious that he left his team in an inexplicably terrible spot. Whether you liked or disliked his decision, whether you reached that determination through first- or second-guessing, there was a logical rationale behind everything the manager opted to do Monday. And the reason it didn't work was simpler than multi-layered edicts decreed from the dugout.
The Sox just didn't execute.
More than the quirks of the ballpark, more than David Price's attitude, more than anything else, execution was what decided the first two games of this series. The Sox did all the little things to put themselves in, then capitalize, on a sequence of advantageous situations -- while the Rays consistently were sloppy and ineffective, both at the plate and particularly in the field. As such, Boston won twice and pushed Tampa to the brink.
But Monday, after Ortiz seized the chance created by an overshift and slapped a single through the left side to give his team a 3-0 lead, we saw what can happen when the execution breaks down.
The most blatant example of that -- because of the way it changed the game, and because of the way Farrell's decision was immediately second-guessed -- came on the home run to Longoria. This morning the cry is that the Sox should've intentionally walked the Rays' best hitter with men on second and third, since first base was open. But let's look at all the factors that influenced Farrell's decision.
Putting Longoria on would've meant putting the tying run on base and the go-ahead run at the plate. To that point, Longoria was 7-for-36 (.194) against Buchholz in his career, with no homers and just one RBI. That included an 0-for-2 effort so far in Game 3, with Buchholz having thus far induced a flyball to center in the first, then won a seven-pitch battle by freezing Longoria for a called third strike in the fourth.
On top of that, Buchholz had allowed just one homer to a right-handed hitter all season, so it's hard to fault Farrell for thinking one of the American League's best starting pitchers could manage that situation. And it's even hard to fault the pitch that was called. Twice on the night, the Sox had retired Longoria by throwing him changeups inside. The first ran in on his hands. The second stunned him by dropping into the top of the zone.
The problem with the third was that the pitch wasn't executed well enough. As Longoria said, "I just barely got enough of the next pitch. It was a changeup that just stayed up enough for me to get enough barrel on it" -- and Longoria's history bears that out. Had the pitch been just a little bit lower, or even a little bit more in, it's not a pitch that the Rays' third baseman typically takes deep.
But Buchholz didn't make the pitch he needed to make in that situation. And it began an unfortunate trend for Boston.
The lack of execution showed up in the top of the eighth, when Farrell's decision to pinch run Berry, and Berry's subsequent steal, could've potentially made a non-issue of Ortiz's spot coming due later had Mike Napoli just found a way to advance the runner from second with nobody out instead of hitting a routine grounder to shortstop. Or had Stephen Drew, entrusted with the at-bat instead of Bogaerts, delivered Berry two batters later.
Then it showed up again in the bottom of the inning, first when southpaw Franklin Morales walked the lefty-batting leadoff man. Then when Napoli charged too hard and the Sox got no out on Desmond Jennings' attempt to sacrifice himself. Then once more when Drew and Dustin Pedroia didn't communicate on a ground ball up the middle -- causing a collision that turned two potential outs into none.
The confluence of those fundamental failures eventually allowed the Rays to score the go-ahead run without hitting the ball of the infield -- and were in many ways as much a surprise as Koji Uehara giving up a game-winning home run an inning later, given what the Red Sox have proven themselves to be along the path to 99 wins. Six months of evidence says they're a team that's perpetually aware, plays to the situation very well, enjoys the spotlight, and thrives in the moment because of the way they pay attention to detail.
Much of that went missing late Monday, so the Rays were able to keep their season alive even though they didn't play all that much crisper, didn't pitch all that much more effectively, didn't hit all that much better than they did over the weekend in Boston -- and even though their manager put them in a position where their pitcher probably would've been forced to bat had the game gone extra innings, which was a possibility he invited by playing the infield back when the Sox had the tying run on third in the ninth.
Of all the managerial decisions made over the four-hour marathon, those two by Joe Maddon were probably the most curious. Had they backfired he would've been the bull's eye-wearing fish-in-a-barrel, yet he lived to discuss them because it's rare a manager's decisions actually decide anything -- unless they're followed through by the expected level of execution.
Monday night, that's what the Red Sox were missing.
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