BOSTON -- For just the second time in his seven seasons as the manager of the Red Sox, Terry Francona had no games to get ready for after Sunday's regular-season finale.

How was he holding up after a long season?

"Why, do I look that bad?" Francona said.

In truth, the manager -- just as he has during the championship times -- was able to keep things in their proper perspective.

"Things happen during every season, unless you win the World Series, [and] around here, that's kind of what you shoot for," Francona said. "It's not possible that it happens every year."

To Francona, the toughest part of the season was not the barrage of injuries, but instead the first month of the season. At that time, veterans were coming to grips with new roles and newcomers were still getting acclimated. The Red Sox floundered, getting off to a 4-9 start and finishing the month 11-12.

"I'd say the first month was tough," Francona said. "I felt like I was chasing my tail a little bit. That's probably the best way to put it. I was a little frustrated with what was going on and I don't know that I handled it like I wanted to. Then after that, things started going pretty well.

"Then we got beat up and that took a toll. But from a team standpoint, I thought we were starting to get that, though, regardless of who was playing, we seemed to be going in one direction and trying to do the right thing. We weren't always good enough. So I was OK, I think. We had a lot of challenges and we didn't meet all of them, but that doesn't mean you have to be miserable."

Varitek would like to retun to Boston next year

BOSTON -- If this was indeed Jason Varitek's last at-bat with the Red Sox, it nearly missed being even more storybook ending than Mike Lowell's final chapter on Saturday.

Boston's captain since 2005 and cornerstone player for 13 years stepped in for the bottom of the eighth and got yet another loud ovation on a day full of them from the Fenway faithful.

"Yeah, it caught me way off guard when I went to go hit," Varitek said after the Red Sox's 8-4 victory over the Yankees. "I can't really say that every bone in my body wasn't shaking. I had to really try to take a few deep breaths and try to relax a little bit."

Varitek took a cut and the ball flew to right-center. The crowd stood up. Varitek hopped hopefully out of the batter's box. And then Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher tracked it down just in front of the Red Sox's bullpen in right-center.

A couple of more feet -- or some warmer air -- and Varitek had himself a home run. It was the second near miss in as many days. In the final at-bat of Lowell's career, he hit a single off the Monster that came just a couple of feet from clearing the wall.

Varitek thought he had it.

"Yeah, I did [think so]," admitted Varitek. "I hit the ball really well. If I pull it down the line, it goes way out. Anything to center [or] left-center today wasn't really happening. We were joking around, but I was trying to be aggressive [with] my swing. I swung and missed at the first one. Hit the second one really good. More times than not, when I find the barrel like that, the ball caries well."

If that last at-bat wasn't emotional enough, Red Sox manager Terry Francona created some more for the captain. He went out to warm up Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth inning, and Kevin Cash then came out to relieve Varitek. As Varitek came off the field, the crowd again was on its feet. Varitek spotted his daughters and waved.

"My kids have grown up here. My oldest is 10 and I've been here 13 years," said Varitek. "This is a part of them, too. ... As long as I've been here, I haven't really known where the family section was. But somehow when I was walking on deck, I actually saw my second [daughter, Kendall]. They know I don't ever wave, so I actually waved."

In the process, was Varitek waving goodbye to Red Sox Nation? He can't answer that. Neither can the Red Sox. But does he want to be back?

"Absolutely," said Varitek, who is 38. "But I do want to play and I don't know [where it will be]. We'll just have to see what happens. But I do appreciate the fan support [and] respect my teammates. This has been a special place for me."

With Victor Martinez also a free agent and Jarrod Saltalamacchia under the club's contractual control, the club can't know yet what will happen with Varitek. But despite the emotion of Sunday, they haven't ruled out a return engagement for No. 33.

"No matter what happens going forward, he's a Red Sox," said general manager Theo Epstein. "More than anyone of us, he's a Red Sox. The future is uncertain. While that warmth the fans showed and his teammates showed may have seemed like a goodbye, it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. I think there's uncertainty with our catching situation, and we'll see how things turn out. That's the nature of the future. We just don't know. But for today, it was a very, very appropriate moment for a guy who has meant more to this franchise than just about anybody."

Sunday was Varitek's 1,478th game in the Majors, all of them with the Red Sox.

He singled in his first at-bat and finished 1-for-4.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen with a lot of things, so whether 'Tek is here for another three years, he deserves respect anyway," said Francona. "What 'Tek has done and what he will continue to do -- I know I've said it [before], that 'C' he wears, there's a reason."

Though Varitek's on-field presence isn't what it once was, Francona thinks he was never more of a captain than this year.

"When you go through tough times or when you've been hurt, your true colors can come out," Francona said. "His did. This guy, he helped keep us together this year. That's not an easy task when you're hurt. And he went out of his way to be the captain. If anything, my appreciation and respect for him grew this year. He became more vocal. He tried to lead when he couldn't play. And he pulled it off."

As he does every offseason, Varitek will now head home to Georgia and spend time with his daughters. This time, however, he doesn't know if Boston will be his baseball home in 2011.

"It's obvious how dear this place has been to me. I've been fortunate to be in one place my whole career," said Varitek. "You have that kind of respect from the fan base. More importantly, you have that respect from your teammates. It's emotional. I feel like I can do some things still. I'll just have to see. You're not always in control of what is ahead of you."