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ON BASEBALL

The situation is unmanageable

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's been a season of tremendous disappointment for the Red Sox on many levels, and twice now the team's biggest name, David Ortiz, has scared one and all with reports of an irregular heartbeat.

After learning about 70 minutes before last night's game that Ortiz was experiencing a recurrence, manager Terry Francona had to adjust on the fly again. Ortiz wanted to play, but Francona would not allow him to risk his well-being. The manager told him to shut down, and after conferring with general manager Theo Epstein and trainer Paul Lessard, they decided that Ortiz will return to Boston today for further evaluation.

``As much as we want to win, we just can't do it -- we just can't let him go out there," said Francona.

It is one of the many major issues that Francona has had to deal with this season. Which is why you can't blame him for the precipitous tumble the Sox have taken, a downslide that continued with an uninspired 9-0 loss to the A's last night.

The issues with this team go beyond Francona.

The roster has become paper-thin. There were no trades made at the deadline to improve the team. Josh Beckett never really emerged as the dependable No. 2 starter. The team did not properly replace Johnny Damon. There were injuries upon injuries. The offense was Ortiz and Manny Ramírez and every so often Mike Lowell or Jason Varitek or Trot Nixon, back when they were healthy. The bullpen has been a mess. Mike Timlin is nowhere near the set-up man he once was. Keith Foulke has missed most of the season with injuries and even as late as Saturday he wasn't available because of a bad back.

The Sox were forced to use their young relievers, placing far too much responsibility on guys who should have been getting their feet wet in mopup duty. But it worked the other way. Julian Tavarez and Rudy Seanez, who were paid big money to be the middle relievers, wound up being the mopup men. Seanez has been released.

Francona didn't get dumb this season. He manages and prepares the same way he always did. Instead of writing in Damon's name, he puts down Coco Crisp, a player who can barely throw the ball back to the infield. Instead of trotting out Pedro Martínez or Derek Lowe every fifth day, it's been Jon Lester, a 22-year-old rookie who went on the disabled list yesterday, and Kyle Snyder and Jason Johnson and Kason Gabbard. Yikes.

Management let Francona down, and he hasn't made a peep about it. Amazingly, he takes the hits the way he did Sunday, apologizing for putting Kevin Youkilis in left field. What else could he do with Ramírez and Wily Mo Peña nursing injuries?

Less than an hour before last night's game, Ortiz had to be scratched. Francona had to go into a game against the West Division leaders without Ortiz and Ramírez. His first baseman was Carlos Peña, called up from Pawtucket yesterday.

``If there's criticism of Francona, it's way off base," said an American League general manager. ``He's had nothing to work with. He's not a miracle worker. Management and ownership has to take the full responsibility for what's happened there."

Ownership and Epstein have taken responsibility. But their mea culpas don't do Francona any good. His players feel for him. Lowell is constantly trying to put things in a positive light for Francona.

Obviously, Francona isn't completely blameless. When your roster is so thin, it's difficult to push the right buttons. The use of the bullpen becomes tricky because you have no idea who's available or who is pitching well on a daily basis.

As if things weren't bad enough, Francona gave everyone a scare Sunday in his postgame news conference when he started spitting blood into a towel. Was the pressure getting to him?

``I bit my cheek," he explained. ``And when I did it, I went, `Damn.' Little things like shaving on Coumadin [a blood thinner] are bad. I probably needed a stitch. That was the second towel you guys saw. I had a towel on the plane. It was awful."

As with his team, the bleeding didn't stop.

``I woke up this morning with a mouthful [of blood]," said Francona. ``It was horrible. Any you guys want to go eat now?"

Francona has been on the blood-thinning medication for about four years after suffering a pulmonary embolism. He's had numerous physical issues, even what he called a ``fake heart attack" early last year in New York that turned out to be a virus.

Through it all, he's remained upbeat, often joking about his ailments.

He's not a yeller, and he may not be considered one of the ``toughest" managers in the game, but as Damon pointed out recently, ``He has a tremendous calming effect on players. Players want to play hard for Tito, and they always do. If you're a player, you're never gonna play for a better man. He understands players."

But every day, it seems, there's a new problem at the ballpark, and Francona tries to handle it without his players seeing that he's distressed.

Last night, the inside of his cheek was swollen and sore. He had bit it accidentally during Sunday's game, likely when Raul Ibanez hit a grand slam.

``I couldn't bite down, and it sounded like I had a big lisp," he said. ``They gave me these [medicated] sticks, and the first six didn't work, so what happened is I just burned the side of my cheek.

``Theo and I are talking after the game -- about bringing up Peña and moves we can make -- and he's saying, `Can you please stop bleeding?' I couldn't even carry on a conversation without hemorrhaging."

Still, Francona is hanging in and he feels his team is, as well. He doesn't see signs that players have quit. Which is exactly what he should say and needs to say as the leader.

``We came through the Yankee series and we were beat up, and I know people don't want to hear that, but it's the way it is," he said. ``We went to Anaheim and we started out pretty well.

``We're not swinging the bats well and so we're going to have some bumps in the road. But I can't bail on how I felt. I respect this team. There are different names out there, I know. But I like this team. I don't like our record, nobody does.

``But I don't have a problem about how we go about our business, or I would tell them. I think we've run into a mode like yesterday when we tried to do too much. But I'd rather that happen than be lackadaisical."

He feels that trying to evaluate a team in the middle of such chaos isn't fair to anyone.

``When this season is all said and done, and we see where we're at, I can probably give you better answers," he said. ``Right now, we're not the team we were a month ago. We're playing a lot of guys that are normally on our bench. But getting the feeling back of winning would certainly be helpful."

And so he went out last night against the Oakland A's with Alex Cora batting second at shortstop, Mark Loretta DHing and batting third, and guys like Eric Hinske, Carlos Peña, and Javy Lopez in the middle of the order. And Kason Gabbard as the starting pitcher.

Yeah, that's Francona's fault.

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