At this point in the season, Red Sox manager Terry Francona has more than his team to manage. He's also tasked with managing expectations.
No one would claim that Bostonians are starved for a championship — the Red Sox have been extremely successful in Francona's five years in town (missing the playoffs only once and winning two World Series). But playoff runs and championships have come to be expected.
Francona manages any assumptions by his cautious treatment of his players, particularly his starting rotation. While Red Sox Nation was pleasantly surprised by the dominant return of Daisuke Matsuzaka on Tuesday night, Francona was measured in his response, though he did admit that it was "a huge shot in the arm" for the team.
Equally telling is Francona's treatment of Tim Wakefield. The veteran knuckleballer and elder statesman continues to deal with complications and discomfort from a compressed disk in his lower back, but neither Wakefield nor Francona wants another trip to the disabled list for the pitcher.
"I don't want to pull the plug,? Wakefield told the Providence Journal. ?I've gone this far."
Francona admits that the team is trying to do the right thing with Wakefield, but said he doesn?t know if the team knows ?what the right thing is yet." Both sides are committed to preserving Wakefield's health while also making decisions in the best interest of the team.
With the Red Sox taking a commanding lead in the wild-card race over the Texas Rangers, Francona can afford to be careful with his pitchers, though he is not without concern. Paul Byrd has been mediocre with a 1-1 record and 5.79 ERA, and Wakefield's continued absence gives Francona one less option. And while Matsuzaka's start on Tuesday was certainly encouraging, the small sample size is far from a definitive turn around.
Eighteen games remain in the regular season, and the Red Sox? magic number is down to 12. Francona will continue to handle his pitching staff with care.