Too Tight Sox Not A Good Fit

CLEVELAND—Terry Francona said Tuesday afternoon no one should read too much into the post-game demeanor Monday of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who, after lasting just 4 2/3 innings for the second straight start, sat alone staring into his locker for more than an hour after the Sox lost Game Three of the AL Championship Series. (FREE PREVIEW OF PREMIUM CONTENT)

"The thing I don't get too worked up about is how somebody is perceived or maybe what they say after a tough loss," Francona said.

Perhaps he knows that to do so would be counterproductive—and that Matsuzaka's demeanor Monday is more a symbol of the Sox' mindset than the post-Game Three behavior of David Ortiz, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.

That would be bad news for the Sox, who lost again to the Indians, 7-3, in Game Four Tuesday and don't seem, beyond a handful of players, relaxed enough to mount a comeback from a three games to one deficit.

Being relaxed in the face of elimination seems to run counter to the urgency of the moment, but to see Ortiz, Beckett and Lowell lounging on couches in the visiting locker room late Monday night—watching and dissecting the Rockies-Diamondbacks game, drinking beers and generally acting more like a trio of laid-back college buddies in a dorm room than multi-millionaire ballplayers—was to realize they understand there's nothing to be gained by fretting over what has already happened and the seemingly long road ahead.

Ortiz and Beckett discussed the merits of a batter keeping a notebook, a la Curt Schilling. Ortiz, who ran into an out in the fourth inning when he was hit in the groin area by a batted ball, joked about it, saying he missed a tragedy by a couple inches. That, in turn, inspired Lowell—a survivor of testicular cancer—to say Ortiz would have been like him.

At one point, another Sox player wondered why Ortiz stuck around instead of catching a bus back to the hotel. "If I go back to my room right now, we're doing the same thing I'm doing here, but without beer," he said.

Then he laughed. "I stay here, I get beer for free!"

There was no TV-watching or beer-drinking in a silent and sober clubhouse Tuesday, nor will there be any relaxation tips forthcoming from Lowell. "I think that's a personality thing a little bit more than an experience thing," Lowell said. "I don't think anything positive can come out of dwelling on a loss. I think we have to put it aside and try to dwell on or visualize positive things that we can do in the next game. You're not doing anything good by moping or thinking about things that went wrong."

The Sox have proven throughout the season their personality is nowhere near that of the 2004 club, which shrugged off the task of ending an 86-year title drought with a goofiness that was as endearing as it was authentic. Francona was the self-deprecating bald guy with the big nose who laughed off his non-descript playing career and managerial tenure in Philadelphia. Theo Epstein was the hip young general manager as likely to attend a Pearl Jam concert as he was to scour the waiver wire. Johnny Damon was just one of many idiots.

And in the end, it was that blissful unawareness that allowed the Sox to come back from a three games to none deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. These Sox are not nearly so casual, and the pursuit of the seventh World Championship in franchise history has lacked the joyfulness that permeated the sixth one.

Though still personable, Francona has been unusually short-tempered much of the season. Epstein, hardened by his departure and eventual return following the 2005 season, has retreated from public view and is completely immersed in his work.

This seriousness has trickled down to the locker room. The concept of a player smashing a pie in a teammate's face during a post-game interview—which ex-Sox right fielder Trot Nixon does for the Indians on a regular basis—is as unimaginable as Francona showing up to work with a Manny Ramirez-style hairdo.

The Sox didn't seem to be the type of team that would be comfortable playing from behind in the postseason, a la the 2004 edition. Now that they're on the edge of elimination in the ALCS, the Sox do not have to worry about Ortiz, the Reggie Jackson of this generation. They don't have to worry about Beckett, who helped the Marlins come back from a three games to one deficit in the 2003 NLCS and whose self-confidence is exceeded only by his talent. They don't have to worry about Lowell, who has dealt with far more pressing issues than a postseason deficit.

"I've had to go through some [expletive] in my life," Lowell said. "I had to be able to bury it and move on."

They don't have to worry about anyone who played a vital role in the 2004 run—particularly their manager, who has been far more relaxed in the sprint of the postseason than he was in the marathon of the regular season. When a reporter asked Francona how much sleep he got Sunday, Francona asked if he should tell him how many times he got up to go to the bathroom as well. He also proved the heat of the postseason isn't going to influence his decision-making by sticking with Tim Wakefield as the Game Four starter instead of calling on Beckett on three days rest.

It's everybody else the Sox have to worry about. Matsuzaka is literally carrying the weight of an entire country on his right shoulder. The usually cocky Dustin Pedroia is swinging like it's April again. Kevin Youkilis, whose goatee seems to have been grown in order to conceal his perpetual frown, cursed at reporters who were gathered near his locker Monday night. Coco Crisp's mood changes by the hour. J.D. Drew…OK, no one has any idea what he's thinking.

Even the supposedly easy-going players have revealed themselves to be anything but. When Jonathan Papelbon made a show of asking reporters if the surging Yankees had won July 19—he and everyone else in the room knew they'd just lost to the Blue Jays—it didn't show the Sox were unworried about the Yankees, only that they'd become obsessed with those who were saying the Yankees could once again miraculously overtake the Sox, just as they had in 1978.

A fan wants to see players who are just as absorbed and obsessed by the losses as he is. But that's not the perspective the Sox need in order to come back and beat the Indians.

"Is our game that important to all the people in Afghanistan?" Lowell said late Tuesday. "It's a crock of [expletive]. But in New England, it is. And I understand that. So I focus on the positive."

Said Mike Timlin Monday: "This is not the end of the world. We've lost games all year. But we've got to come back…tie our shoes on again, take batting practice, do what we've got to do. Relax, have some fun and play this game. We have an unbelievable team. Just go out and play."

The rest of the Sox are learning—too late—that it's easier said than done.


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE

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