On Opening Day, John Farrell was asked to describe the hallmark of a team that he manages.
"The one word we continue to talk about in here," he suggested in New York, "is to be relentless."
Ten games (and six wins) into his tenure with the Red Sox, that term seems an accurate depiction of Farrell's own managerial style on a couple of levels. The Red Sox' 2-1 victory on Saturday further underscored Farrell's intermingling of relentlessness and restlessness in stewarding the Red Sox roster. A pair of personnel decisions as well as an element of in-game strategy on the game's decisive play pointed to the manager's imprint.
The most eye-opening moment of the game occurred in the ninth inning. Back in December, when the Sox traded for Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates, it took Farrell all of about 30 seconds to declare the two-time All-Star his closer and Andrew Bailey a setup man, a decision made to smother any whiff of controversy and uncertainty about roles. But on Saturday, it became clear that Farrell will not be beholden to the job descriptions that he has outlined to the point of jeopardizing a victory.
When Hanrahan could not find the strike zone against leadoff hitter Evan Longoria in a 1-1 ninth-inning tie, an immediate call was placed to the bullpen to encourage Koji Uehara to loosen. It is often said that closers need not look over their shoulder, that once they enter the game, the outcome is in their hands, but after four errant pitches -- on top of Hanrahan's struggles in each of his previous two games, one in which he yielded a ninth-inning homer while earning a save, the other a five-run implosion in a loss -- Farrell abandoned the conventional wisdom of sitting on his hands. After Hanrahan lost Ben Zobrist on a full-count for another walk, the manager made the move to replace the right-hander and bring in Uehara with the potential game-winning run on second and no outs.
The move worked spectacularly, of course. Uehara punched out James Loney and elicited a pair of pop-ups, requiring just nine pitches to defuse the explosive situation that Hanrahan had left behind. There's a very good chance that, without such a bold move, the Red Sox would have lost.
Still, such a decision carries consequences from a personnel standpoint. In this case, the decision to pull Hanrahan with the game's outcome still in the balance meant that Farrell would have to answer questions about whether, less than two weeks into the season, he had changed course on the identity of his closer. The Red Sox manager knew this when he made the move, and understood the inevitability of the line of questioning he'd face in its aftermath. Still, he was willing to accept a potentially awkward personnel situation in order to give his team its best chance.
Win now, resolve the personnel question later.
"No move is going to be made," Farrell said after the game of whether he was changing course regarding Hanrahan's role. "That's a situation that the closer comes in, tie game at home, but after the two leadoff walks, we felt like we had someone behind him with Koji. Right now, Joel is going through a little bit of a spell where things aren't clicking for him, but we're still with him. We've got a guy who picked him up today in Koji who did one heck of a job to shut off that threat in the ninth."
In some respects, the decision with Hanrahan echoed another decision that Farrell made prior to the game. When the Red Sox made the decision to add Jackie Bradley Jr. to their Opening Day roster, the team committed to having him play on an everyday basis. His aggressive promotion to the big leagues would not come at the expense of the repetitions and at-bats needed to advance his player development.
That, at least, was the theory. But with Bradley struggling, unable to get a ball out of the infield since last Friday, Farrell had him sitting on Saturday for the second time in six days against a left-hander, this time Rays ace David Price. How does the manager reconcile Bradley's player development needs with the idea of creating his best offense?
"It is a balance," Farrell said. "Going up against a guy like Price or [Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen] Chen, with some of the recent developments with Jackie over the last three or four days, we still want to put the most competitive lineup we can on the field. We're not here to say there's roster changes that are going to take place just because Jackie's not playing for the second time in four days. That's not what we're here about. We'll continue to find the right combinations, and that would include Jackie in different scenarios as well."
Translation: Yes, there are different interests to balance. Yet the one that pulls the greatest weight is the one that gives the team the best chance to win on a given night. Bradley will be in the lineup when he represents the best option to let the team win; when that is not the case, he'll sit.
In some ways, such managerial decisions point to Farrell as a blend of his two Red Sox predecessors. Terry Francona, of course, was famously patient with his regulars, willing to ride out their struggles for what seemed like ages, suggesting along the way that they would find their way to their career norms. Bobby Valentine, on the other hand, not only had little patience for struggles but also had a way of taking a delicate personnel situation that they engendered -- the equivalent of a crack in glass -- and hitting it with a sledgehammer.
(In that sense, it is noteworthy that Monday will be the one-year anniversary of Valentine's suggestion that Kevin Youkilis was not "as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.")
Farrell's dugout focus suggests that he wants to make the aggressive moves necessary to give his team its best chance in the immediate term. However, he's also mindful of the delicacy (and consequences) of his decisions.
He and his staff built the relationships with the players in spring training to have difficult and frank conversations. Early in the season, he's in a position to have some of those -- most notably with Hanrahan -- but they will take place behind closed doors before anything is aired in public.
"Because we are just minutes out of the game," Farrell said when asked about the possibility of having Hanrahan work through his struggles in something other than the ninth inning, "I have yet to talk to Joel, we're not going to deviate from [the idea of him as a closer] at this moment."
Farrell's managerial imprint was also evident in another form on Saturday, chiefly in the game-winning Red Sox rally. Farrell has said repeatedly since spring training that he wants to see the Sox feature an aggressive approach on the bases that forces the opposing pitching staff and defense onto its heels. True to form, in the bottom of the 10th, after Jacoby Ellsbury singled, stole second and advanced to third with one out, Farrell wanted the pedal down.
In a delicious bit of managerial strategy, the Rays not only played their infield in, but also elected to feature an alignment of five infielders and two outfielders. Such a deployment increased the likelihood that a ball in play would be directly at one of the infield defenders.
Yet even with five Rays infielders crowding the infield grass, Ellsbury took off for the plate as soon as Shane Victorino smashed a grounder towards second. Because the contact play -- in which Ellsbury was to take off from third on any ground ball -- was in effect, the Rays had no play at the plate when shortstop Yunel Escobar (positioned on the second base side of the bag) had to dive to his left.
"In those situations, we're going on contact. Even with an overloaded infield, we're not going to alter our attack plan on the basepaths in that situation," explained Farrell. "That's the type of game we want to play. We want to force the defense to put pressure on them. When you've got a guy with that kind of speed down there, any kind of ball that's not directly at someone, that's a pretty difficult play for an infielder to change directions and not only field a ball cleanly but throw a strike anywhere from 90-100 feet away from home plate. The contact play is something we use consistently."
No surprise there. After all, Farrell wants a relentless team, and as a manager, he appears to have his own relentless approach and style. He is leaving a mark of his team's style of play, not just with the types of decisions that he's making, but also in terms of the process that he's following before making them.
"This is the most prepared group that I’ve ever been around. Hands down," said catcher David Ross. "There’s no group better prepared from any aspect of the game. whether it’s the running game, what the other manager does, who they liked to double-switch for, who they like to pinch hit for. We’re as prepared going into this game as any team I’ve ever been on.
"That’s his job. If not, what’s the manager do? Make up the lineup? I can do that. That’s what he gets paid for and he does a good job of it. He’s got the numbers and he’s got the information from all the scouting and all the video, all the stuff they do. Those guys are here way early getting that information. So I have 100 percent confidence in him in making moves."
There may come a time when the outcomes look different -- that's the nature of the beast when it comes to managing, which is, in some ways, an exercise in fighting the odds akin to blackjack -- but for now, Farrell's decisions have been directly related to his team's early successes in an important stretch against divisional opponents.
Farrell's pursuit of wins in the early-going? Relentless.