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Transcript of Theo Epstein on D&C: ‘We have a tremendous opportunity to respond’

09.12.11 at 11:17 am ET

With the Red Sox in their worst slump since April and the wild card lead dwindling, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein joined the Dennis & Callahan show Monday and provided his perspective on the team’s struggles.

Rather than concede to full panic mode, Epstein said he sees this late-season slump as a tremendous opportunity.

“For me, the message is — and obviously I think this pervades the clubhouse — is it’s not what happens to you,” Epstein said. “Every team is going to stumble, every team is going to get kicked in the mouth. It’s how you respond.”

When asked how September turned sour so quickly, Epstein admitted to a combination of factors responsible for the downturn.

“Obviously, we’re not getting very good starting pitching right now,” Epstein said. “Our bullpen is in a downturn. We have some guys who are not having the kind of at-bats they have had over the course of the season. We are not playing great defense. We’re making some mistakes once the ball is in play. A little bit of everything has contributed to it. It’s not just one thing. It’s across the board why we’ve had a really bad couple of weeks.”

Following is a transcript of the conversation. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

How and why has September turned sour?

I don’t know. We were asking ourselves the same questions in April. It’s odd, the way we’ve done this — open the year 2-10, then have the best record in baseball for over four months, and now we’re 3-10 all of a sudden.

It’s never one factor. There are a lot of things that we’re not doing well right now, and those are all contributing. Obviously, we’re not getting very good starting pitching right now. Our bullpen is in a downturn. We have some guys who are not having the kind of at-bats they have had over the course of the season. We are not playing great defense. We’re making some mistakes once the ball is in play. A little bit of everything has contributed to it. It’s not just one thing. It’s across the board why we’ve had a really bad couple of weeks.

You almost get the sense when the starting pitchers can’t come up with the quality starts and that starts taxing the bullpen and then guys start pressing at the plate and then guys get injured and then you get in slumps and you start kicking the ball a little bit, it almost has a contagious feeling to it, doesn’t it?

It seems that way. It’s hard to tell whether it actually is. It probably is to a small extent and beyond that it just seems that way when so many things aren’t going well. I do think that when you have a run of bad starting pitching, it does obviously tax the bullpen, and then there’s a little bit of an effect on the offense as well. These guys go to the at-bat early in the game feeling like they’re down 5-0, and sometimes they are. Sometimes it just feels that way. It’s hard to have — especially with our kind of approach where you need to be patient — you need to have good at-bats when the other guys aren’t hitting. It’s sort of a group offense mentality. It’s hard to have those kind of at-bats when you feel like you need to put a crooked number on the board all the time. I’m sure that’s the way it is. And then guys start looking at each other wondering who’s going to step up.

So sure, there’s momentum when you’re playing well. We won two out of every three games for about four months. There’s a contagiousness to that where you’re expecting things to go well. When you’re on the other side of the coin, sure, there’s a little bit of that where you’re expecting things to go poorly.

But I think the thing that we have going for us here — beyond the fact that we’re a really good team and we’re just not playing like it right now — is that we’ve pulled ourselves out of this before. April was no walk in the park. It’s different in September. You have the length of the season to fix things. But you were around the team then. You remember what that was like. That was not fun, and this team did a great job of pulling itself out of that. We certainly can do it again, and we have to. We’ve been punched in the mouth here a little bit. It’s how we respond that matters.

What can you and/or [Terry Francona] do about this? Is there someone you can bring in? Is there a drastic measure you can take before Tuesday?

Obviously, we spent some time talking about that. We’ll talk more about it today. We did a lot of things in April and I don’t think any of them are responsible for us turning the season around. It ultimately fell on the players playing better and pulling through it. That will be the case here when we turn this thing around. It will be to the credit of the players for doing it.

That said, sure, there are moves we can make, there are things we are considering inside the organization. We didn’t rule out some things from outside, but that’s obviously not something that can help us in October. You feel like you need that help in September, it doesn’t bode well for October. So obviously, internal solutions and tweaks and adjustments and improvements are much preferred over external ones at this time of year.

You and your baseball people, do you know what’s the problem with John Lackey? Do you understand why he has the highest ERA in the league?

Again, I think it’s a number of factors. We were pretty hopeful for a while there that he was pulling himself out of it. He had a run of good starts and started to throw the ball better. There’s been a bit of regression here lately. That’s what makes it frustrating. If it were that easy to pinpoint, obviously he would have made an adjustment by now. It’s a continual struggle to try to pinpoint what exactly is going on with him and make adjustments so he can help us.

What message does the general manager try to send to the guys in the organization at this point? David Ortiz came out, maybe he was kidding, and said, ‘Hell, yeah, it’s time to panic. We’re playing bad baseball right now.’ I don’t think panic is probably the message you’re sending.

For me, the message is — and obviously I think this pervades the clubhouse — is it’s not what happens to you. Every team is going to stumble, every team is going to get kicked in the mouth. It’s how you respond. It’s incumbent on us to respond the right way. If we don’t respond the right way, there’s going to be night after night after night that all of us, and every single one of our players, is going to wake up and say, “Gosh, we were 3½ up with 17 games to play and felt like it was slipping away from us. Why didn’t we just come out and play great baseball the way we have for most of the year?”

As much as this seems like a massive problem, this is also a tremendous opportunity. We have a tremendous opportunity to respond for the second time in one regular season to a stretch horrendous play with great opportunity ahead beyond that. If we can right the ship, and we will, not only will we be where we want to be at the end of the regular season, but we’re going to have great momentum headed into the postseason.

I’m glad we play the Rays four times coming up. If we can’t right the ship against these guys, if we can’t do what we need to do, we probably don’t deserve to get into the postseason. As much as this looks like a crisis from the outside and obviously has not been fun on the inside, this is an opportunity. If we are what we think we are, to quote somebody else, then this is a great opportunity for us to go play well for 2½ weeks, ride some momentum into the postseason and be the team that we were for four months, the best team in baseball over four months. We have to go do that.

Just in terms of the overall self-image of this ball club in that clubhouse, is it possible that Dustin Pedroia’s presence is so important to this team’s personality, to this team’s self-image, that when Pedroia hits a rough spot it tends to blossom out to the rest of the clubhouse. Is that possible or does that make no sense at all?

I think that’s putting an awful lot on one guy. He’s definitely a central figure and he is extremely important. He helps define the personality of this club. His play on the field, not just what he does but how he does it, is a model for the rest of the players. And I do think it’s not just fans watching at home who watch the way he plays and appreciate it and are fired up by it. It’s major league players who also experience that watching him do what he can do and the way he does it.

But I think it’s putting too much on him to say that that’s true. There have been some stretches, mid-May, when the team has been playing well and he’s been still slumping. Ultimately, when he turned it around that’s when we got really hot. But if you look back historically, he’s gone through stretches where he hasn’t played well for 40, 50 at-bats and this team is still fine. I have a feeling he’s going to come out of it. He always does, especially at the most important times of year. And we are; it will be related. But it’s too much to say that as he goes, we go all the time.

Did everyone in that clubhouse assume [the Red Sox would make the playoffs]? Were you guys thinking about the postseason a little prematurely?

I can’t get into the minds of every single player in that clubhouse. I don’t think so. I think there’s always been a focus to go out and win that next game. I’ll say this: I know when Tito and I get together after the games and talk about how we played and he asks what happened in the other games beyond the score, we’ve always been talking about the Rays. Even when we were 10 up a couple weeks ago or whatever it was. We’ve never fully erased them from our radar.

As much as you want the division — and we do want the division and we still want the division — you look ahead of you, and in a division like this, you’re always looking around you as well. Sure, it looked good. We put ourselves in a position where it looked good, and it still looks good if we play the way we’re supposed to. But I don’t think we ever took 100 percent for granted that we’re in the playoffs. You have to play until you spray champagne and then you can look to the postseason. We’re not there yet and we have a lot of work to do ahead of us now to get there.

I’m looking at the immediate future here. I’ve got the probable pitchers for the next couple of days against the Blue Jays. You’ve got [Tim] Wakefield against [Brandon] Morrow tomorrow, Lackey against [Ricky] Romero on Wednesday. We don’t know who’s facing [Jeremy] Hellickson on Thursday. Do you think there might be a surprise in there, or is that set in stone?

That’s probably set in stone. Look, our starting pitching is beat up, and were trying to get these guys back as soon as we can, but were not going to put them in the position that they’re going to pitch hurt.

Beckett, today’s an important day for him. He’s going to throw. The best-case scenario for Beckett, if all goes well today, would indicate a pretty quick return to the rotation, which is good news. And [Erik] Bedard hopefully soon after that. That would be a big boost. The starting pitcher does matter. Earl Weaver said, ‘Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.’ So, that’s pretty important. I think for the short term, we’re pretty locked in. We’re going to try to get good news from Beckett today and go from there.

Will any of these starting pitching woes tempt you — tempt you — to accelerate Clay Buchholz‘ return?

We can’t accelerate his return. We laid out a timetable about four weeks ago that would represent a best-case scenario. So far, he’s exceeded every goal. It has been the best-case scenario. Knock on wood, it will continue to be so. He hasn’t been off a mound yet, which is a big step, so it’s hard to get too excited until he actually gets of a mound, because that’s what slowed him down in the past. Once he gets past that hurdle, then we can start to get a little excited that he can help us. It’s not going to be in lengthy outings. He just doesn’t have time, certainly in the regular season, to get stretched out for any kind of significant long outing.

So, you’re talking about Buchholz possibly out of the ‘pen.

Yea, it’s been out there before, Clay said the other day his goal is to try to make an appearance sometime right toward the end of the regular season. Clearly, that would be a shorter stint. He wouldn’t have time to be stretched out. So, yeah, that could be out of the ‘pen.

What’s your general feeling, your philosophy about guys playing hurt? I know you don’t want Beckett playing hurt and hurting himself any worse, but you’re in a pennant race now. Should the mindset change of certain guys who might have been thinking about October? Do they now have to think about September? Do they have to think about playing now, playing tomorrow?

Yes, if it’s a gray area, yeah. There are dozens of questions that go into that. First of all, is it potentially a debilitating injury that puts the player, by playing does he put himself in real danger, potential for real trouble. Obviously, no player in that situation should play under any circumstance.

Is it a situation on the other extreme, where he’s just trying to rest to make himself close to 100 percent so he can perform at the absolute peak of his ability? Then in that situation, you play when the games matter. Then there’s all different shades of gray in between.

There are a lot of examples out there of players really gutting in out and trying to play hurt and play through some things, and as a result don’t perform really well and don’t heal and don’t help us and end up hurting us. That’s not what we’re looking for.

But yes, there are lots of examples of players sucking it up and getting out there and finding a way and willing their way to help this team. That would help us right now.

Look, we are beat up. These aren’t imaginary injuries. These players have played their tails off for most of the season. We’ve got a lot of players right now who are hurt. It’s our job to try to get them healthy as soon as possible so we can get best possible team on the field. But there’s no lack of desire or lack of urgency out there. It’s a matter of legitimate injuries that we need to try to get them back from as soon as possible.

What about hypothetically a guy [J.D. Drew] who has 16 games left on his contract, his five-year deal, and he has a sore middle finger. Would you like to see him suit up and give it a try?

J.D.’s got a broken finger, for what that’s worth. He’s got an avulsion fracture of his middle finger. He needs to heal, and hopefully he can come back from that. We haven’t ruled anything out with him. He wants to be out there. He got back, his rehab game went 3-for-3, and on that last at-bat broke that finger. He’s doing the best he can, and we want to try to get him back as soon as we can. Same is the case for a number of other guys that we have out, that we’ve had out for a long time here.

For like 4-5 years, we’ve been saying [Jonathan] Papelbon’s gone, once he gets to free agency, see you later, he’s history, move on to the [Daniel] Bard era or whatever. Did you ever think that way, and has it changed at all. Is there a chance we’ll see Papelbon back in a Red Sox uniform next year?

We’ve never thought that way. Since we drafted him back in 2003 and he proved himself in the minor leagues and came up and made the transition to closer, he’s been a huge part of this team. He’s always been a part of our plans, obviously. We haven’t been able to sign him to a longterm deal throughout his arbitration years. Now, the different scenario is with free agency coming up. But  there’s never been a lack of interest in keeping him here.

Obviously, a proven guy, dominant guy. Frankly, I think when a lot of people doubted him over the previous two years, when he wasn’t quite as great as he was earlier in his career, we stuck with him, and now we’re getting rewarded for that this year. I have to think there’s a lot of mutual interest in containing the relationship. Whether it can be done or not, who knows. Free agency is always interesting. Those are our best two guys in the bullpen. You don’t get better by losing one of those guys.

And Ortiz?

It’s not the time to talk about that stuff. Look, we picked up David’s option because it was on his contract and because we were interested in having him back. Obviously, we’re interested in having him back. But it’s never the time to talk about that during the regular season, and especially a time like this. We’ve put ourselves in a position now where our most important baseball lies ahead of us, over the next 17 days and beyond. That has to be our exclusive focus, and it is.

Why wasn’t Kevin Millwood an option to bolster the rotation?

At the time, we had guys ahead of him. His stuff, in our judgment and the judgment of our Triple-A staff, it wasn’t going to play at the major league level here for the Red Sox above the other options that we had. Frankly, for a while there, the other options pitched pretty well ahead of him. Now that we’re breaking down, sure, it would be nice to have a veteran guy. But he had an out in his deal, and he moved on.

Anything you want to say to Red Sox Nation to calm the waters as we go into this last 17 days?

As I told you guys earlier, we have an opportunity ahead of us to play good baseball for 2 1/2 weeks and ride that momentum to the postseason. If we don’t do it, we don’t deserve to be there. We have to prove that we are the team that had the best record in baseball for four-plus months, not the team that started 2-10 or has played 3-10 most recently. That’s on us. We need to go out and do it.

Read More: Clay Buchholz, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, J.D Drew
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