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Jackie MacMullan

Francona has managed to succeed

With his second trip to the World Series in four seasons with the Red Sox, Terry Francona has reason to be upbeat. With his second trip to the World Series in four seasons with the Red Sox, Terry Francona has reason to be upbeat. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

The manager is in his clubhouse office crunching numbers and reviewing the notes he and his staff labored over until past 9:30 Monday night.

The team is waiting for him to reveal his playoff roster and his starting lineup for Game 1 of the World Series, and Terry Francona is still not 100 percent sure what he's going to do.

"I've still got to talk to a couple of my players," he said, rubbing his bald pate.

He looks bleary-eyed, a little gaunt, but this is a major improvement over past seasons when the rigors of the job left him literally coughing up blood. Francona is totally immersed in his trade, implementing each personnel decision with painstaking care, examining both the short-term and long-term ramifications of each move he makes on his baseball chessboard.

It was a trying day yesterday. Because of Tim Wakefield's ongoing health issues with his back and shoulder, Francona had to tell him he was off the World Series roster. Francona still hasn't worked out who will sit when there's no DH for Games 3, 4, and 5 in Colorado. And he had to notify Coco Crisp that he won't be starting in center field for Game 1.

It irritates the manager how quickly fans have turned on Crisp. The venomous response to Eric Gagné has been difficult for him to watch. Francona wonders whether they've forgotten that Gagné is a real person, a father, a husband, a man with feelings, a former All-Star who is sick about his ineffectiveness.

He has lived with these players, mentally catalogued their triumphs, disappointments, personal and professional stresses, and how those factors have affected their baseball performance. He knows them.

And yet Francona is questioned, scrutinized, and second-guessed more than any individual in Boston. He has delivered this team to the World Series for the second time in just four seasons, but like all Red Sox managers before him, Terry Francona is still auditioning for the job.

He doesn't much care about any of that. He loves baseball - lives for it, actually. All he wants to do is put his team in the best position to win.

"A huge part of my job is making sure I'm consistent," Francona said. "I'm not saying I'm always right, but I do what I think is correct."

When the Sox were down, 3-1, in the American League Championship Series against Cleveland, it was all the manager's fault - for not starting Josh Beckett on three days' rest, for not pulling the trigger on Jacoby Ellsbury, for having the audacity to put Gagné into a game that was hanging in the balance.

When the team roared back to win the ALCS, it had nothing to do with the manager. It was the wonderful Dustin Pedroia, the passionate Kevin Youkilis, the finally redemptive Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But by refraining from pitching Beckett in Game 4, Francona banked a win from his ace in Game 5 and now has a rested Cy Young candidate ready to bring it in Game 1 against the Colorado Rockies.

He did insert Ellsbury into his lineup for Games 6 and 7, and the kid responded with the same energy he exhibited in his September call-up. In the ninth inning of Game 7, Francona called for defensive adjustments that included plugging Crisp in at center, moving Ellsbury to left, and removing Manny Ramírez from the game.

Ellsbury made a diving grab in left that would have dropped in front of Manny, then Coco chased down a ball in the triangle in center field to clinch his club's World Series ticket. The manager nodded approvingly, because even when Crisp isn't hitting, he's still a superb outfielder who should not be forgotten.

Francona announced yesterday that Ellsbury would start in center in Game 1, in part because Crisp banged up his knee on his clinching catch. If Crisp recovers sufficiently, don't be surprised if you see him back in the lineup at some point, especially if lefthander Jeff Francis is on the mound.

Francona is fiercely loyal to his veterans, a philosophy that has paid off handsomely, both with Mark Bellhorn's postseason heroics in 2004 and J.D. Drew's grand slam in Game 6 of this year's ALCS. Give up on Coco? Not this manager.

There's nothing sentimental about his thinking. He sees what the average fan does not: a motivated Crisp attacking the batting cage with a vengeance, hell-bent on proving his detractors wrong.

"That's why you can't pay attention to what's being said out there," he said, in a quiet moment before his team took the field for practice. "It doesn't help. If anything, it probably skews it.

"When we announced Ellsbury in the lineup, someone said, 'You finally relented.' Well, no, that's not it. I did what's best for the team.

"It was no fun telling Coco. After we were done, I made sure DeMarlo [Hale] followed up. Part of building relationships with these guys is having tough conversations you'd rather not have."

There is a difference between stubbornness and obstinacy, and Francona has been labeled both. The only time he truly fell into the latter category was when he was the manager in Philadelphia and received letters demanding that he stop wearing his casual workout top over his uniform. Even the league office instructed him to cease and desist, yet he defiantly continued to wear it.

"That was bad," he conceded. "That was obstinate. But as far as baseball decisions go, there's no place for that. I can't afford to be stubborn. Each game is too important."

He can afford to be honest, and his players have grown accustomed to his unflinching willingness to give them the straight story.

"Good, bad, or otherwise, he's going to tell you what's going on," said reliever Javier Lopez. "There were times this season when I was on the train back and forth to Pawtucket. It wasn't easy, and sometimes it was as simple as the fact I had options and could be sent down, and others couldn't.

"I appreciated him telling me the truth. It's much better than sitting around guessing."

Jonathan Papelbon still lauds the manner in which Francona handled his brief stint as a starter, even though, he said, he suspected his manager preferred him in the closer role from the beginning.

"They had been talking about me being a starter since the day they drafted me," Papelbon said. "And I was kind of brainwashed, so to speak, into thinking maybe that was right.

"Tito handled that whole thing real well. To be a manager today, you have to have a damn degree in psychology.

"I wouldn't want to be him. When my career is over, one thing I won't be is a manager."

Terry Francona can't make sense of that. The manager might be gaunt, stressed, and sleep-deprived, but he couldn't be happier.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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