Curt Schilling doesn't need a matching set of healthy ankles to be right about one thing: In this town, with this team, it always does come back to the manager. He's either a candidate for bronzing or for the hanging tree.
And with the Red Sox going overtime to beat the Yankees, 6-4, in 12 innings in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series last night, Terry Francona could be excused for feeling his neck muscles relaxing, at least for the moment. Even if most everything he did last night worked -- especially in a very un-Soxlike rally in the bottom of the ninth made possible by a walk, a stolen base by pinch runner Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller's base hit -- any reprieve Francona may get may be good only as long as the Sox stave off elimination.
The gamble Francona took by bringing in Keith Foulke in the seventh inning, which paid off immensely when Foulke went 2 2/3 scoreless innings? It probably bought Francona a "Get out of Jail" free card, nothing more. And he was temporarily spurred further grief that the "W" on this one went to Curtis Leskanic, the same pitcher who looked so hideous the night before. Amazing how much smarter Leskanic made his manager look.
"We set out [last night] to win," a hoarse Francona said last night. "That was our only objective. Somehow we did. Our objective now is to win [today]. We did a lot of things [last night] to hang on and win that game. A lot of guys did a lot of things [last night] to help us win."
Unlike his predecessor, Grady Little, Francona has the unqualified public support of both his general manager, Theo Epstein, and his owner, John W. Henry, which is perhaps why he was able to crack a joke yesterday afternoon when someone asked him how the great unwashed responded when he walked through their midst after appearing in the interview room.
"They were a little better than when I took that victory lap on the cart," Francona said, referring to the golf cart that had cut across the diamond to take him to the interview room following Saturday night's 19-8 embarrassment. "You don't want to get in a situation, so you hustle through. That might appear to be rude to people, because you're hustling through."
Best, given the amount of grumbling heard in a variety of precincts, that Francona didn't dawdle long in any one place. A mob already agitated by the way Francona deployed his bullpen in the Game 3 fiasco was annoyed further last night when Francona lifted Derek Lowe with a 3-2 lead in the sixth, only to have Mike Timlin give it away by failing to retire any of the first five batters he faced.
Francona had one very influential defender in Fox analyst Tim McCarver, who early on in last night's telecast wondered aloud how Francona could be held accountable, in the wake of Schilling's injury, for the pitching decisions the manager made. But why Francona should be entitled to skate unhindered without some backchecking (a bone for you hockey-starved types) is unclear here, however, given his decisions to entrust Ramiro Mendoza and Leskanic, the bottom end of his pitching staff, with the 2004 season at a crossroads between opportunity and oblivion in Game 3.
For his part, Francona, when asked if he would have done anything differently in Game 3, said no. Tim Wakefield was sent down to the bullpen in the third with the idea that he would begin a clean inning, the fifth. There was no thought of pulling Bronson Arroyo, though he'd been touched for three runs in the first and a leadoff double by Ruben Sierra in the second, after the Sox took a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the second.
"You don't want to be going to the bullpen in the third inning," Francona said yesterday. "At some point, you've got to get a little more out of him. We didn't go very long."
Arroyo was pulled after Alex Rodriguez homered, Gary Sheffield walked, and Hideki Matsui doubled Sheffield to third to open the fourth. In came Mendoza, who wasn't even on the team's roster for the Division Series against the Angels. The statmeisters apparently came into play here. Bernie Williams, in three at-bats against Mendoza, was hitless. That ended when Williams singled home Sheffield.
Leskanic, after Mendoza hit Miguel Cairo to open the fourth? "We had Lesky face the guys he's gotten out," Francona said. "We'd gotten guys in a position where they could succeed. It didn't happen."
It didn't happen because the numbers sometimes mean squat in October. Sheffield, 2 for 15 lifetime against Leskanic, crushed a three-run home run. Wakefield gave an intentional walk to Jorge Posada to face Sierra, 1 for 13 lifetime against the knuckleballer. Sierra ripped a two-run double, and the Sox were about done for the night.
But last night, Leskanic was on the top of the barricades, inducing Williams to fly out to leave the bases loaded in the 11th, then leaving Posada stranded at second after a broken-bat single to open the 12th.
How helpless does a manager feel when every move he makes blows up in his face?
"I'm with them," Francona said. "We have had so many good games. We won 98 games and I got to sit there and watch it. When it goes bad, you have to be there with them, too. You have to be there. It's important. It wasn't the way we drew it up, it didn't come close."
It came much closer last night, which is why they'll play on. Martinez at 5 tonight, Schilling on wobbly ankles if it goes back to the Bronx tomorrow. Load up on the No-Doz.