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Dan Shaughnessy

Questions linger as Francona gets some static

By Dan Shaughnessy
July 19, 2005
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Even while his team continues its free fall, the Red Sox manager has good perspective.

''I don't wake up in the morning and run to the radio to see how I'm being perceived," Terry Francona said before last night's 3-1 loss to the Devil Rays. ''I'd be in trouble if I did that."

No kidding. Don Zimmer was consumed by his critics when he managed the Red Sox. John McNamara never found peace in the corner office at Fenway. Even He Who Must Not Be Named caved under the pressure at the end of his tenure in Boston.

Francona was barbecued all day yesterday after the Sox dropped Sunday night's thriller to the Yankees, and there was plenty of booing during last night's defeat. Fans aren't happy that John Olerud sat on the bench while fly-swatter Alex Cora batted with the bases loaded and none out in the bottom of the ninth against Mariano Rivera Sunday. Cora grounded into a double play and the Sox wound up losing, 5-3.

After Sunday's game, Francona said he batted Cora because he didn't have anyone to play second base (Mark Bellhorn already had been lifted because of a sprained thumb) if the game went to extra innings. The manager could have put Kevin Millar at third and moved Bill Mueller to second, but Francona said he'd promised Mueller he wouldn't play him at second and he wanted to keep his word. Mueller was on base when Cora batted and thus unavailable for consultation.

All of the above made for great programming on sports radio and there were more questions for Francona and Mueller when the Sox gathered in their clubhouse before taking on the mighty Rays. Bellhorn already had been placed on the disabled list and Cora started at second.

Minutes before Francona opened his office to print reporters, he called Mueller into his office. After a brief meeting, Mueller departed and Francona met the press, while general manager Theo Epstein stood beside him.

''I talked to Bill Mueller a little bit about going over there [second base] and giving us a little flexibility and he's willing to do that," said the manager. ''He's got some issues about going over there that he's worried about. That's not his position."

Why not put him there Sunday if the game went to extra innings?

''I had told him we would not do that," said the manager. ''And I don't think you can tell someone something like that and then change it. You can't all of a sudden say, 'This inning is more important.' You can't do that."

Armed with this information, I went to Mueller's locker. Would he have been willing to play second in extra innings Sunday?

''Oh yeah," he said. ''I'm not totally comfortable, especially turning the double plays. But I'm willing to help us in any situation. By all means."

I suggested that the manager was taking a bullet for his player.

''That's the kind of quality guy he is," said Mueller. ''He sticks to his word. Plus, hindsight is 20/20. I'm not sure that [letting Cora hit] was a bad move. I wasn't afraid of that matchup. I agree with the decision. I want what Tito goes with."

''Of course Billy would have gone over there," said Millar. ''What's he going do, say 'no'?"

While this was going on, Francona finished speaking with the print media. Traditionally, the electronic media pours into his office immediately after the ink-stained folks leave, but Epstein asked for a moment with his manager and the two had a brief closed-door meeting before the cameras entered.

When the door reopened, Francona answered questions for the TV/radio reporters. Then he called me back in.

''I wanted to clarify what I said earlier," he started. ''I misspoke when I answered your questions earlier and that's never a good thing to do in my position.

''I didn't ever go to Bill to talk to him about this, but I'm confident I could have. I really wanted to see Alex [who was batting .199] hit. Did I think about using Olerud? Yes, but I really wanted to see Cora. If I thought that one move [Olerud] would have won the game for us, I would have gone to Billy, but I really wanted to see Cora hit. Sometimes there's more to gain than there is to lose and it's not about just one situation. You pull a guy [Cora] there, what kind of a message is that sending?"

I nodded. I said I still believe that everyone in the park (and all Sox fans watching on TV) would rather see Olerud than Cora. I also mentioned that given the sequence of the afternoon's events, it looked like Tito was now saying what Epstein wanted him to say.

''No," he said. ''That meeting with Theo was about something completely different. I can speak for myself. Ownership would never get involved in anything like this and Theo agrees that we should have let Cora hit. I know he does."

So there. By the end of the afternoon, after a couple of closed-door meetings, the manager, the player, and the GM were all on the same page. But their unified stance did little to soothe the disgruntled Nation.

How much faith can you have in an organization that sanctions a decision to bat Alex Cora instead of John Olerud with the game on the line against the Yankees?

The Sox have lost nine of their last 13 at Fenway and the manager with the World Series ring on his finger is suddenly sitting on the hot seat.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is shaughnessy@globe.com

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