You hope it's just the knee.
It's far less disconcerting if the clear-cut, definitive reason for why Red Sox closer Keith Foulke suddenly can't get anybody out is because of a balky left knee that the Sox announced yesterday will require arthroscopic surgery.
Somehow, I don't think it's that simple. There have been too many other variables that have clouded Foulke's performance and his demeanor.
There was the mysterious trip to Alabama, which Foulke claimed was to attend a barbecue. Too many sources have countered it was to visit noted physician James Andrews to have Foulke's mechanics checked out. As for the vaguely described ''personal matters" the closer has referenced, those, too, probably play a role.
Throw in a general distaste for the media and an increasingly strained relationship with Boston's discerning fans and you've got to wonder if Foulke should be stopping by for a chat with team psychologist Bob Tewksbury to discuss the mental fallout of this horrific season before he goes under the knife.
Yesterday's other developments included news that Curt Schilling will be a stopgap in the bullpen while he continues to regain his form as the team's starting ace. You know Schilling will attack the closer's role with his trademark gusto and confidence. What if he mows 'em down in order night after night, and fancies himself as a John Smoltz clone? Where does that leave Foulke, who suddenly appears very vulnerable? What if the Sox acquire Seattle closer Eddie Guardado, who is pitching for a bad team that needs to unload payroll?
The closer has one of the most pressure-packed jobs in sports. In Boston, multiply that stress times 10. When Foulke arrived as a trumpeted free agent in December 2003, there were whispers out of Oakland that he would struggle with the microscopic attention paid to Red Sox players, and pitchers in particular. Manager Terry Francona, who spent a year as Foulke's bench coach in Oakland, dismissed that, insisting Foulke was the type who, after a blown save, would be immediately asking for the ball again the next night to rectify matters.
Last season, the closer lived up to that billing. He was a money pitcher, in the regular season, and the playoffs, when he was 1-0 with three saves and an ERA of 0.64. You could have easily made the case that Foulke, not Manny Ramirez, was the true World Series MVP.
That karma is kaput. Foulke has already blown four saves this season and sports a gaudy 6.23 ERA. Something, obviously, was wrong. Maybe Boston asked him to do too much last season. Maybe his toughness -- pitching hurt all this time -- is to be applauded.
Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley publicly called for a change in closers on NESN after Monday's ninth-inning debacle in which Foulke blew a 5-4 lead. Lucky for the closer the game was on the road, or it could have been ugly.
Eck has endured the wrath of the Fenway Faithful. His tenure in Boston, which included a 37-18 record as a starter over the first two seasons, bottomed out in 1983 when he went 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA.
''I had no arm speed," Eckersley said yesterday. ''The [rough treatment from the fans] brought me to my knees. That walk from the bullpen gate to the dugout was brutal.
''I'll never forget that. It's something that stays with you forever."
Eckersley was gone from the Sox nine games into 1984. He reinvented himself as a top-notch reliever with Oakland, and from 1988 to 1993 saved an average of 42.7 games a season.
''I was very lucky," Eckersley said. ''The tough times I had as a closer were in Oakland and in St. Louis, and those are much easier places to struggle than in Boston. The scrutiny wasn't there.
''That's why I always say, 'When you make a decision to go somewhere, be careful.' "
Eckersley has watched Foulke closely, and aside from the obvious drop-off in velocity, he noticed a change in temperament.
''He almost looks like he's a little frightened out there," said Eckersley. ''It's the toughest part of the job. You're saying, 'Give me the ball, I need to work through this,' but at the same time you're saying, 'Aw, I'm not sure I really want to go out there.' "
It would seem natural that Eckersley and Foulke would have talked some baseball by now, particularly on the scrutiny of pitching in Boston, but Eck said that hasn't really happened.
''I've seen him around," Eckersley said, ''but I don't know him at all. It's not for me to say what kind of guy he is. When you watch him from afar, he doesn't come across as the most likable person. He's not someone you see and say, 'Hey, he looks like fun.' "
Bob Stanley, the congenial former Sox closer and current pitching coach for San Francisco's Double A affiliate in Norwich, Conn., knows all too well what it's like to be Foulke.
''It's that whole love-hate relationship," Stanley said yesterday. ''I've been there, done that. Boston fans are the greatest, but sometimes they don't realize you're human."
Stanley recalls a stretch in 1986 when he rang up 24 scoreless innings and went 12 consecutive games without giving up a hit.
''Then I give up four runs against the Yankees and they booed me off the field," he said.
The Steamer cringed when he read Foulke's ''Johnny from Burger King" comments. He knows all too well how one slip of the tongue can haunt you. In 1986, after being heckled in the home opener, Stanley uttered the now famous quote, ''When I stand out there and save the final game of the season and we win the pennant and I'm waving in the air, I'll be waving to my wife and family. The rest of 'em can go to hell." That October, Stanley was on the mound, one strike away from winning that World Series, when it all unraveled in historic fashion.
''I wasn't mad because they were on me," Stanley said. ''I got upset when my son came running into the clubhouse crying because they were booing his dad. That's when I lost it.
''I laugh at it now. I laughed at it the next day. There's a lot of pressure pitching in Boston. When you put pressure on yourself to perform, that's kind of the wrong way to go about it."
Foulke's most vocal critics will likely back off now that a physical ailment has been detected and steps to correct it have been taken. Even so, when Foulke comes back, he will be expected to perform at the highest level.
''You hope they remember he did win a World Series for them," noted Stanley.
''The media and fan pressure is enormous in this city," added former Sox general manager Lou Gorman. ''I'm not going to name names, but I did have players who came to me and told me they didn't want to play here. It got too personal for them, and they resented it."
There's no way of telling if Foulke falls into that category. His magical World Series carpet ride has crash landed into a rocky road riddled with potholes. Even he had to understand why the most patient Red Sox fans were shouting into their television set Monday, ''Get that guy outta there!"
He's out now, all right, and for how long is anyone's guess. Maybe the surgery will solve the mystery of his sudden inability to pinpoint his location (Jason Varitek is right, the lack of velocity is not nearly as troubling as the control issue). Maybe the break will afford him some perspective, and perhaps, even a little sympathy.
It's possible when Foulke returns he will recreate his dominant stature of 2004.
It's also possible the Sox can't wait, and he's all done for the year.
Whatever happens, counseled Eckersley, it's important to stay true to yourself.
''These Boston fans, they can see right through you," Eckersley said. ''You can't be phony. I mean that as a compliment. You can't trick these people.
''Truthfully, I don't think [Foulke] is even trying to do that. He's in it deep."
Sox fans are hoping now it's only knee deep.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.