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Dan Shaughnessy

If they lose game, there'll be blame

THEO EPSTEIN This is his team THEO EPSTEIN This is his team

So there. For the 86th consecutive autumn, the Red Sox are not going to win the World Series.
- Boston Sunday Globe, Oct. 17, 2004

CLEVELAND - Those were my words. And as Rick Pitino once said, that's how I felt at the time.

The statement appeared on the front page of this newspaper the day after the Yankees crushed the Sox, 19-8, at Fenway Park in Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

The Globe has yet to run a correction. And I have tried to be more careful regarding declarative statements. Never say never and all that.

In this spirit, we remind despondent Red Sox Nationalists that the Sox can still beat the Indians and advance to a World Series that would start Wednesday at Fenway. Josh Beckett is certainly capable of winning tonight and Curt Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka can win back to back at Fenway this weekend. Right?

There are multiple examples of comebacks from 3-1 in baseball and basketball. I remember the Pittsburgh Pirates coming back to beat the Orioles after falling behind, 3-1, in the 1979 World Series. Earl Weaver had Mike Flanagan, Jim Palmer, and Scott McGregor lined up for Games 5, 6, and 7. Remember the Celtics against the 76ers in 1981? And of course, Sox fans will always have Paris - the 2004 comeback from 0-3 against the Yankees. It's important to remember all that at a time like this.

But . . .

There's just so much working against your team. It's hard to be positive. And even though the Sox aren't done yet, some of us are already at work carving up the blame pie (speaking of pies, a Cleveland sportscaster did his postgame TV show wearing a cream pie on his head late Tuesday).

Theo Epstein is in for his share of finger-pointing if the Sox are eliminated by the Tribe. It's never a good thing when your $143 million payroll bites the dust against a team with a $61 million payroll. Dan Duquette assembled half of the 2004 champs, but what we are looking at today is almost exclusively Theo's team and it's his most recent acquisitions who have been exposed thus far in October.

Certainly, John Henry expected he was buying a pitcher who could finish five innings of a playoff game when he committed $103 million to Matsuzaka. Julio Lugo (.208) and J.D. Drew (.231) continue to be a drag on the lineup and the payroll. And then there's Coco Crisp (.192), who looks more and more like a man who's going to be traded this winter. Organization poster boy Dustin Pedroia is hitting .172 against the Tribe. Manny Delcarmen is 0-2 in important situations in the ALCS, and Eric Gagné has replaced Grady Little as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Theo's guys, one and all.

At this hour, however, it's the manager who's taking a beating throughout the Nation. Even though it might have been a baseball ops decision, Terry Francona will be the one blamed for not pitching Beckett in Game 4. There was a whisper campaign Tuesday night, hinting that maybe Beckett didn't pitch because of a sore back, and the manager gave it some credence yesterday, saying, "I think I might have said he was kind of beat up, or it took a toll on him."

If Beckett is hurting, he shouldn't pitch tonight. If he's not, Game 4 on three days' rest would have allowed him to pitch three times in this series. Now the Sox are looking at (best case) Dice-K or Wakefield again in Game 7 and Beckett only twice in the series. At the risk of piling on, it was pretty clear the Tim Wakefield start wasn't going to have a good outcome. He'd won one game since Aug. 25, had given up 24 runs in his last 25 innings, had taken two cortisone shots in the shoulder, had a career postseason ERA of 6.12, and hadn't pitched in 2 1/2 weeks.

It's folly to suggest that Francona's loyalty to Wakefield got in the way of the team making a correct decision, but in this series, the manager's inflexibility has bordered on stubbornness (remember Don Zimmer?). Failing to address the Wakefield issue after the Game 2 disaster is only part of the story. It's Tito's inaction with the lineup that has many fans fuming.

The Sox have scored in only two of the last 24 innings, and in that time, they have not scored on anything that wasn't a home run. They have been outscored, 18-5, since the 11th inning of Game 2.

Why no alterations in the top or bottom of the order? Why no Jacoby Ellsbury? With southpaw C.C. Sabathia going tonight, there's no call for the kid, but would it have been too radical to start him in Game 3 or 4?

"I think part of my responsibility is, when you think you know what's right to stay with what's right," Francona said Tuesday. "If you go away with what got you there, I think that's cheating the players."

The L-word was tossed at the manager again before yesterday's workout, and he said, "There's a difference between being loyal and doing what you think is right."

At the end of the day, it may just be that the Indians are better. Perhaps the Tribe lineup should get credit for doing what no one did in 2007 - knocking out three successive Boston starters before the end of the fifth inning. Certainly, Cleveland's bullpen has been superior to Boston's, rendering Jonathan Papelbon a nonfactor thus far in the series.

The Indians, remember, also won 96 games this year. They have yet to lose a home playoff game and they're up, 3-1, on the Sox without any contributions from 19-game winners Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, who are on tap to pitch tonight and Saturday.

Lastly, we must address the larger forces. Manny Ramírez yesterday said he was not trying to show anybody up and he had some fun striking poses during batting practice, but his Cadillac moment (raising his arms as if he'd just hit a walkoff when his sixth-inning blast cut the score to 7-3) at home plate in Game 4 was classless and obnoxious. It was an embarrassment to anyone who says they love baseball and/or the Red Sox.

No one will ever say anything, of course, but you have to wonder what his teammates and manager really think.

Ramírez was not in the Sox dugout when Mike Lowell and Drew made the first outs against Cleveland reliever Rafael Betancourt in the ninth. He came back from whatever he was doing to watch Crisp line to first for the final out.

Yesterday in a rare interview, Ramírez said, "If it doesn't happen, so who cares? There's always next year. It's not like it's the end of the world or something."

That should fire everybody up.

It doesn't feel like we are watching a team that can crawl out of this hole. But some of us said the same thing in 2004 when Ramírez wound up being MVP of the World Series.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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