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Post-mortem leaves question of Francona’s future unanswered

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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For nearly 33 minutes yesterday, Red Sox manager Terry Francona sat next to general manager Theo Epstein on a small stage in a crowded room at Fenway Park and took questions about how the 2011 team had so utterly failed.

When the press conference was over, Francona stood up quickly and brushed past Epstein on his way out a side door.

Was it the final public act of a once-fruitful partnership that yielded two World Series championships? Francona’s future with the team was one of the biggest questions looming over yesterday’s post-mortem.

When the Red Sox ended their season with a bitter 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday, a 10-day window opened for the team to decide whether to exercise its $4.5 million contract option on Francona for 2012.

Epstein said he and Francona would meet with team owners John Henry and Tom Werner along with club president Larry Lucchino in the coming days to discuss the future.

“We’re less than 24 hours removed from the end of the season,’’ Epstein said. “We need some time to calm down, get objective and look at ourselves, look at 2011, look ahead [and] make the best decisions for everybody.’’

On a day when concerns about team chemistry were revealed for the first time, Epstein exonerated Francona for the team’s September collapse, saying he had talked to ownership and all agreed that the manager wasn’t to blame for the team’s losing a nine-game lead in the wild-card race.

“That would be totally irresponsible and totally short-sighted and wouldn’t recognize everything that he means to the organization and to all our success, including at times during 2011,’’ Epstein said. “We take full responsibility for that. For all of us, collectively it’s a failure.’’

But owners can’t be fired and Epstein remains held in high regard by Henry. That could leave Francona and members of his coaching staff to pay the penalty for the well-funded Sox missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

Henry, who usually communicates with the media via e-mail, did not respond to questions about his team and its wrenching finish.

Francona said the team “became challenging’’ at the end because of fractured chemistry. He called a team meeting Sept. 7 - the day after a 14-0 win over Toronto - to address what he felt were lingering issues.

“There were things I was worried about,’’ Francona said. “I thought we were spending too much energy on things that weren’t putting our best foot forward toward winning. We spent a few minutes in the clubhouse talking about that.

“There were some things that did concern me. Teams normally, as the season progresses, there’s events that make you care about each other and with this club, it didn’t always happen as much as I wanted it to. And I was frustrated by that.’’

Throughout the season, the Red Sox operated more individually than collectively. Going 7-20 in September was the final example.

“Ultimately, you don’t need a team that wants to go out to dinner together. But you need a team that wants to protect each other on the field and be fiercely loyal to each other on the field,’’ Francona said. “That‘s what ultimately is really important. I wanted us to handle things on the field a little bit better than we did. At times, we just didn’t get there and it was very difficult.’’

Francona has spent eight seasons in one of the most closely scrutinized jobs in sports. Asked whether he wanted to remain with the Sox, he gave a strikingly noncommittal answer.

“Theo and I talked today a little bit. I think we’ll continue to talk tomorrow. Maybe it’s best today to stay with where we’re at,’’ Francona said. “It’s still pretty fresh and pretty raw. It’s a fair question.’’

Epstein said he hoped to retain free agent designated hitter David Ortiz and relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon. Ortiz, he said, is the face of the franchise, and Epstein told Papelbon yesterday that he had the best season of his career, on and off the field.

But there could be significant changes to the roster given the sharpness of Epstein’s comments regarding the conduct of the players.

“The way the clubhouse culture has evolved, and this falls on me ultimately as the general manager, we need to be more accountable,’’ he said, citing issues with conditioning, preparedness, and fundamentals on the field.

“In some small ways, we’ve gotten away a little bit our ideal of what we want to be on the field and off the field,’’ Epstein said. “It’s our responsibility to fix it.’’

The Red Sox have finished in third place and out of the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Since the team last won a playoff game, Oct. 16, 2008, nine other teams have won at least one, a number that could grow to 13 before the World Series is decided this season.

In essence, the Red Sox have become a second-tier organization over the last two seasons, sitting behind the Yankees, Rays, Rangers, and Phillies.

How the Red Sox respond to this adversity will be a story that unfolds over the winter.

“We’re going to all get together with ownership and discuss everything,’’ Epstein said. “Continue to identify all the issues that need addressing, taking a hard look at ourselves and seeing whether we’re the people to address them.

“I believe in a lot of people in this organization, including [Francona], including myself, and when we’re at our best, I think this is the best organization in baseball. This year, we weren’t at our best. We need to identify the issues, sit down, identity a plan and execute it to fix it.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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