Francona Facing Tough Decisions for Red Sox in September


Francona Facing Tough Decisions for Red Sox in September Managing the Boston Red Sox is never easy. When you're winning, you're a bum and the players are responsible for the success. When you're losing, you're a bum and it's your fault.

Really, there is no such thing as a good day. Terry Francona, who has managed in two of the toughest sports cities in America, knows this all too well.

So as Francona and the Red Sox gear up for a playoff run that looks like it will go down to the season's final weekend, his job won't be getting any easier.

That fact was compounded on Saturday afternoon, as Tim Wakefield, clearly hobbled by injuries, gutted through six innings in which he gave up four runs. He could barely get to a bunt and he couldn't cover first base, but the 43-year-old competed.

The night earlier, Paul Byrd was lit up in his second start of the year, giving up seven runs on 10 hits in just 2 1/2 innings. The imminent return of Daisuke Matsuzaka should be reason for the Red Sox to get excited, but his so-so rehab starts in the minors (and his overall ineffectiveness all year) have tempered expectations.

The uncertainty surrounding Wakefield, Byrd and Matsuzaka is just one problem surrounding a rotation that at points during the season looked too good to be true. Now, Brad Penny and John Smoltz are rejuvenated in the National League as the Sox hang on with all their might to the wild-card lead.

Thanks to a Texas loss on Saturday, the Sox still hold a two-game lead over the Rangers, but Francona and his staff have their hands full with difficult decisions.

As it currently stands, Byrd is scheduled to pitch on Wednesday, with Wakefield starting on Friday against Tampa Bay. By then, Daisuke could be ready (unless the Sox have him throw for Single-A Greenville). The Rays could be back in the thick of the wild-card race.

Francona has a few options, but none seem like sure things. Does the excellence of Byrd's first start warrant a chance to respond to Friday's disaster? Is the team better served by starting Daisuke in the minors or in the heat of a pennant race. Is Junichi Tazawa and his 7.46 ERA going to inspire any confidence in the club? Most importantly, how do you take the ball out of Tim Wakefield's hand?

Wakefield showed on Saturday why he is forever a Red Sox legend. He was clearly in pain, but he showed the competitiveness that allowed him to win 175 games in a Red Sox uniform. This is the guy who gave up his start in the 2004 ALCS to save the bullpen, opening the door for Derek Lowe to seize the glory. The guy who pitched so brilliantly against the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS, only to give up the series-ending home run. The man who, at 43 years old, said "it's time to push the envelope."

Of course, that's all in Wakefield's past. It's impossible to tell what is in his future, but that's the job assigned to Francona.

In the coming weeks, the decisions will seem easy in retrospect, but as it stands now, they're next to impossible. The stakes are high, and the reward is minimal, but if Francona's showed anything in Boston, it's that he can handle the pressure.

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