By JIMMY GOLEN    AP Sports Writer
BOSTON (AP) _ “Fire away,” Red Sox general manager Theo
Epstein told reporters at the start of his season-ending news
conference. And then, because he’s seen how things go in Boston
when a team doesn’t live up to high expectations, he added, “Not

A day after the Red Sox completed an unprecedented September
collapse, Epstein told reporters at a somber and largely deserted
Fenway Park on Thursday that the entire organization shared the
blame for blowing a nine-game lead in 25 days and promised his full
effort in figuring out what went wrong.

“The bottom line is, we failed. And our owners deserve better,
the fans deserve better and we have to fix it,” Epstein said.
“We’re going to take a look in the mirror and see if we’re the
ones to fix it.”

The Red Sox led the AL East for much of the season and held a
nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race on the
morning of Sept. 4. But Boston went 7-20 in September to blow the
lead and miss the playoffs entirely, a collapse that wasn’t
complete until closer Jonathan Papelbon blew a one-run lead with
one strike to go against Baltimore on Wednesday night and the
Orioles won 4-3.

Just minutes later, the Rays completed their comeback from a 7-0
deficit against the New York Yankees and clinched the wild-card

“A very quiet day in Boston after a terrible, terrible month
for the fans. Night after night they came, they tuned in. Rain,
quiet streets,” Red Sox owner John Henry wrote on Twitter.
“Congratulations to the entire Tampa Bay organization on a
miraculous, but well-earned passport to the postseason.”
Henry did not respond to a request for comment, and co-owner Tom
Werner said he was “still absorbing last night’s collapse.” But
it was not just one night of failure that doomed this team.

The Red Sox lost their first six games and opened the season
2-10, but they went a major league-best 81-42 from then through
Aug. 31 to take a comfortable lead in the playoff race. As it
slowly disappeared, players insisted they would pull out of the
slide in time; but Epstein and manager Terry Francona both
acknowledged on Thursday that they saw signs of trouble.

“A lot of things went wrong and a lot of things had to go wrong
for us to blow the lead, and they did. But I don’t think they were
completely unforeseen,” Epstein said. “The bottom line is we
didn’t find a way to stop the slide.”

Francona said he called a team meeting earlier in the month in
Toronto _ even after a 14-0 win. He did not specify what he saw,
but said “normally, as a season progresses, there’s events that
make you care about each other.”
“With this team, it didn’t happen as much as I wanted it to. I
was frustrated about that,” he said. “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.”

Those problems bubbled to the surface in September, when the Red
Sox failed to win consecutive games. Boston finished 90-72, one
game behind the Rays and seven behind the archrival New York
Yankees; the nine-game lead was the biggest ever held in September
by a team that failed to make the playoffs.

“I think we’ll be dissecting that forever,” Epstein said.
Only a handful of players appeared in the cardboard box-filled
Red Sox clubhouse on Thursday afternoon, including Jonathan
Papelbon and John Lackey; they did not speak to reporters.
Upstairs, Epstein told reporters everything will be evaluated over
the offseason, including the front office and the coaching staff.

But Epstein said he would not make a scapegoat of Francona, who
led the team to World Series championships in 2004, ending the
franchise’s 86-year drought, and in 2007. The front office, owners
and coaches have already begun meeting to figure out what went
wrong, Epstein said, and “nobody blames what happened in September
on Tito.”
“That would be totally irresponsible and shortsighted,”
Epstein said. “As an organization we have to look at our successes
and failures, and what happened in 2011 _ we take full
responsibility for it. All of us collectively look at it as a
failure. I’m the general manager, so I take more responsibility
than anybody.

“But I know we don’t believe in scapegoats, particularly
blaming Tito for what happened in September. We all failed
collectively. We’re all together in this; we’ve got to live with
that. We’re not pointing fingers at any one person in particular.”

The Red Sox reportedly have 10 days to decide whether to pick up
the manager’s two-year option. Francona said he and Epstein had
already approached the topic, but declined to comment on his

“It’s still pretty fresh,” he said, “and pretty raw.”
Epstein said the “silver lining” of the team’s collapse was
that, had the Red Sox made the playoffs, it would have been easier
to overlook the shortcomings of the team that played so poorly down
the stretch.
No chance of that happening now.

“When you go through what we just went through, you can’t look
past anything,” Epstein said. “We have to take a hard look at
every aspect of the organization _ myself included.”

Among the problems Epstein took the blame for were the decisions
on some high-priced free agents. Though he didn’t call them
mistakes, Epstein acknowledged that the team needs more from both
Lackey, who was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA in the second year of a
five-year, $82.5 million deal, and Carl Crawford, who signed a
seven-year, $142 million deal last offseason.

“The rehabilitation of John Lackey,” Epstein said, “I think
it’s a big priority, for obvious reasons.”
And the same is true of Crawford, who was at or near career lows
with a .255 average, 18 stolen bases, 11 homers and 56 RBIs.
“Carl has taken full and very public responsibility for having
a disappointing year,” Epstein said. “The next step is, what are
you going to do about it.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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