BOSTON -- The tire marks were still fresh on the players' chests last Oct. 11 when the Red Sox called dual Fenway Park news conferences to discuss the fallout from an American League Division Series whipping by the Cleveland Indians.
John Farrell went first, and for roughly 25 minutes, the manager ducked, dipped, dove and dodged questions about his job security. Next up was president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who announced Farrell would return, a bit of information that he casually relayed as the two passed each other en route to and from their respective press availabilities.
Awkward? You bet. But it also underscored the matter-of-factness with which ownership and the front office regarded Farrell’s standing within the organization. Fans were calling for his head on Twitter (#firefarrell had become a common hashtag), but Manager John -- as lefty David Price has taken to calling him -- was never in any real danger of losing his job.
A year later, it’s unclear whether that’s still the case.
The Red Sox appear to have an alarming affinity for déjà vu. After winning 93 games and the American League East for a second season in a row, they once again have upchucked on their spikes on the road in the first two games of a best-of-five division series, putting their season on the brink of extinction as they return Sunday to Fenway for Game 3.
But unlike last year, when the Red Sox chalked up their postseason humiliation largely to the inexperience of their young core, it's more difficult to overlook this time that they simply are inferior to the Houston Astros, an offensive juggernaut with better starting pitching.
And so, there is considerable curiosity within the industry about whether another division series sweep will bring sweeping change in Boston, beginning with the manager.
"I think he’s done a great job," Dombrowski said of Farrell last week, before the playoffs began. "He’s a tough guy. He’s a smart baseball man."
Farrell has made a few head-scratching moves in the division series. He used Eduardo Nunez over Hanley Ramirez as the Game 1 designated hitter, even though Nunez had two at-bats in the past month because of a sprained knee ligament. Nunez's knee gave way again in the first inning, and he had to be carried off the field by Farrell and a trainer, although it was the medical staff, not Farrell, that cleared Nunez to play. In Game 2, Farrell took third baseman Rafael Devers out of the lineup against Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel, despite the rookie's strong numbers against lefties and his home run potential for a Red Sox team that is starved for power.
By and large, though, Farrell has had a good year. He has masterfully handled the bullpen, which played a pivotal role in engineering a 15-3 record in extra innings, and preached an aggressive mentality on the bases that helped the offense manufacture runs in the absence of homers.
You would never know it from the social media vitriol and sports talk radio jabber, which default to blaming Farrell for all of the Red Sox's ills.
But the team has far bigger issues than its manager.
Ownership and Dombrowski decided in the offseason to get back below the luxury-tax threshold and never adequately replaced the retired David Ortiz. Without a true middle-of-the-order power threat, the Sox can't stand toe-to-toe with the slugging Stros. That's hardly Farrell's fault, and firing him won't solve anything if the Red Sox don't also sign outfielder J.D. Martinez, set to be a free agent this offseason, or pull off a blockbuster for Miami Marlins masher Giancarlo Stanton.
But if the Red Sox get broomed again, especially after back-to-back 8-2 blowouts in Houston that weren't as close as the score looked, change will have to come to a team that appears to be unpopular with its fan base and has produced sagging ratings on the New England Sports Network.
Farrell has one year left on his contract after the Red Sox’s decision in December to guarantee his 2018 club option. But Dombrowski inherited Farrell upon taking over late in the 2015 season, and rather than bringing him back as a lame duck next year, another sweep could represent an opportunity to hire a manager of his choice.
Here’s the thing: Over the past 12 years, Dombrowski has hired only two managers, one of whom is steadfastly retired (Jim Leyland) and the other who was just fired after a last-place finish with the Detroit Tigers (Brad Ausmus). Dombrowski remains friends with Baseball Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, having worked with him with the Chicago White Sox in the 1980s. But the 73-year-old La Russa hasn’t managed since 2011 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Dombrowski also has learned over the past three seasons that managing the Red Sox is different than managing other teams. The criticism is harsher here, the second-guessing more rampant. There was a reason late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino used to say that then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s job was more difficult than his.
"Managing is a tough job, period. I think it’s a tougher job here than maybe anywhere else," Dombrowski said. "The scrutiny you receive. Being in the game as long as I’ve been in the game, I’m amazed somewhat [by] the scrutiny aspect of it. And then when I look at the names behind [Farrell's] desk, the number of pictures and how few guys have stayed a long time, it just shows you it’s a tough job."
A tough job with potentially tough consequences.