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Grading John Farrell

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 22, 2013 11:14 AM

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Well, we're all kinds of annoyed with him now, aren't we?

For the most part, John Farrell's first season as the Red Sox' manager has been an extended honeymoon. Before he even managed a game for the Red Sox, he had the cachet of having been the respected pitching coach on their most recent championship team. And he got instant bonus points simply for not being Bobby Valentine.

That the Red Sox, winners of 69 games and masters of embarrassment and indifference a season ago, accelerated out of the gate with an 18-8 April and have managed to avoid pretty much every potential pothole along the way so far certainly aided the perception that he was the ideal fit.

Griping about the Red Sox manager is as much a tradition around here as sitting in traffic en route to the Cape, but Farrell, who spent two seasons managing the Blue Jays before taking the job he coveted, hasn't provided much fodder. Even when he's made a mistake -- such as starting knuckleballer Steven Wright against Houston with defensively challenged Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate -- he's been quick to salvage it. Remember, that ballgame was not lost.

Maybe you wish he'd play Mike Carp more and Mike Napoli a little less, but then you remember that loyalty to a struggling veteran was often rewarded during Terry Francona's eight-season, two-championship tenure.

Sometimes he leaves in starters too long, the Red Sox' baserunning is as haphazard as that of the Jays last year under Farrell's watch, and his bullpen decisions can occasionally seem curious right up until he inevitably explains them with detail, logic, and clarity during his postgame media session.

But some decisions can't be explained, and Tuesday night, Farrell made a doozy of a head-scratcher. You know the details, so I'll keep the rehash sparse. In the ninth inning of a 2-2 tie with the Giants, Marco Scutaro came to the plate with the bases loaded. Scutaro, as Red Sox fans recall from his time here, rarely wastes an at-bat. He's walked more times (37) than he's struck out (31) this season.

So who does Farrell bring in? Not Koji Uehara, who hadn't pitched since Saturday, had thrown 13 pitches over the last week, has whiffed 78 against seven unintentional walks in 56 innings this season, owns a WHIP of .67, and hasn't given up an earned run in 21 appearances back to June 30.

No, he didn't go with arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball because he has the designation of closer, and as Farrell explained later, "I'm holding back on Koji because if we push across a run, he's going to close the game out."

The decision to hold off on using your best guy -- any team's best guy -- in a game-deciding situation is puzzling enough. But the decision to pass on Uehara to go with Brayan Villarreal, who hadn't pitched in the majors since April and had walked 35 in 43.2 innings between Triple A and the majors, was inexplicable. And it ended just the way you would have expected: with a four-pitch walkoff walk.

The matchup of Villarreal/Scutaro was such a disadvantageous one for the Red Sox that you'd swear it was a Grady Little concoction.

To top it all off, Farrell used Uehara with an 11-run lead in Wednesday's win. If there ever was a time to introduce Villarreal ... hey, you don't think Farrell was trolling us, do you?

In all seriousness, I think the guy is generally a very good manager. But just how good is yet to be determined, and weird decisions at this point in the schedule do raise your eyebrows a little. You can't help but wonder, because right now we simply don't know the answer: Will he do something like this in the playoffs?

I'm not sure of the precise moment during the 2004 season when we realized Terry Francona was the right manager at the right time for the Red Sox. I suspect it was a few weeks after Orlando Cabrera arrived and the gears in the machine finally started working in beautiful unison.

But I know when it crystallized, and it wasn't a particular moment, but a month. During the Red Sox' October journey to their first World Championship in -- what was it, 86 years? I forget -- Francona outmaneuvered three of the most well-regarded if not the three most well-regarded managers in the game. First it was Mike Scioscia. Then Joe Torre. Tony La Russa was the last to be trumped by Tito that fall.

The Red Sox have 33 games remaining. They've won 75 so far. Should they tack another 18-20 onto that total and lock up a postseason berth, we'll have more evidence, more data, confirming what we're already pretty sure of despite that weird Brayan Villarreal thing: Farrell is the right man for this job.

But we won't know just how right until we see how he faces a similar postseason gauntlet to the one Francona dealt with nine years ago. How will he fare matching strategy with Detroit's Jim Leyland or Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon, the consensus best managers in the American League? (I like his chances against Texas's Ron Washington).

So much of what occurs in the short series of the postseason is dependent upon luck, bounces and timing. And talent is of course essential, for it can bail out even the most self-destructive of in-game managers. (See: Bob Brenly, 2001.)

Managers' lasting reputations and even their legacies can be built and damaged by twists and turns of a ballgame beyond their control.

Which is why it is imperative, as the stakes grow larger and the lights get brighter, to make the best decisions in every matter and moment within a manager's control.

Farrell has done a terrific job restoring the Red Sox this season. But the real shot at glory is still ahead. Here's hoping the lesson has been learned already: Don't think, Meat. Or at least don't over-think. The choice of Villarreal versus Uehara should not have been a choice at all. You probably know that now. The mystery is why you didn't then.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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