BOSTON -- In six of his first seven seasons as general manager of the Red Sox, Theo Epstein did his season review session with the media following a postseason ouster or a World Series championship.
But season eight of the Epstein regime ended with the team six games shy of the 95-plus wins they shoot for every year.
The Rays finished with 96 wins and the Yankees 95, and both of those teams are moving on to the postseason. The Red Sox are going home.
"There's disappointment that we didn't get where we wanted to go," said Epstein. "We didn't reach our ultimate goal of getting to the playoffs and trying to do some damage in October. That said, there's still a lot to be proud of in the way these guys played right to the end. They overcame a lot along the way. So [there's] mixed feelings. We're proud of the effort and proud of some of the things we accomplished, but still disappointed in the ultimate goal."
Saying that injuries played a role in the Red Sox not getting to the postseason is not an excuse -- it's fact. Dustin Pedroia, the American League's MVP in 2008, played just 75 games, and just two after June 25, the night he broke his left foot. Kevin Youkilis, the invaluable cleanup man, was done on Aug. 2 after tearing the adductor muscle in his right thumb. Jacoby Ellsbury, the club's best speed threat and leadoff man, had a completely lost year, serving three separate stints on the disabled list with fractured left ribs.
However, Epstein won't spend the winter simply waiting for his good soldiers to get healthy.
"Obviously, the injuries were a significant factor," said Epstein. "But I think pointing to injuries as the only reason we are where we are is a disservice. It's not going to help us get better. Obviously, next year I think we'll be healthier, but there are also elements we want to improve independently of our health."
And what are those areas?
"Priorities are trying to fix the bullpen, trying to retain some of the important players who we have who are free agents," said Epstein. "[Also] trying to make sure we have a well-rounded club going into next season that can again be one of the best clubs in the league offensively, but also make sure that we pitch and play defense with anybody in the league, too, which I think we had the potential to do but we fell short a little bit in that area the way it turned out."
Epstein discussed several other topics during a lengthy postmortem with the media.
The rotation was, by nearly all accounts, supposed to be the strength of the Red Sox in 2010. They had two of the best young pitchers in the game in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, and gritty veterans Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Perhaps the enigmatic Daisuke Matsuzaka would gain more consistency.
Lester and Buchholz exceeded expectations and were two of the elite pitchers in the league. But Beckett (6-6, 5.78 ERA) and Lackey (14-11, 4.40 ERA) did not live up to expectations, or their salaries. Matsuzaka was once again hit or miss.
After drawing the start on Opening Night, Beckett signed a four-year contract extension the next day. His back went bad in May, and he never got into a good rhythm.
"Josh didn't have the season he was looking for. It reminded me a little of 2006," said Epstein. "Right at the end of that 2006 season, which was a disappointment for him, he really took responsibility for it. The last thing he said on the way out the door that year was, 'I'm going to take a look in the mirror and fix this over the winter.' That's exactly what he did.
"From the day he showed up in Spring Training right through the end of that year, he showed it. I see the same look in his eye now. He's really not avoiding responsibility right now for the year, even though there was an injury that played a critical role in the underperformance. He's taken responsibility for it. He's not dodging the questions. He's going to fix it this winter. The past is usually a good predictor of the future. Last time he had an off-year, he really bounced back. That's what we're looking for again."
"Lackey, to me, had a strong second half," Epstein said. "The first half wasn't quite his best, perhaps some adjustments coming to the American League East from pitching in the [AL] West with the bigger ballparks and different lineups. But I think he made the adjustment along the way and pitched pretty well in the second half."
Matsuzaka showed flashes of brilliance, but he also had some familiar obstacles -- health and consistency.
"With Daisuke, I think a mixed bag with him," Epstein said. "There were some moments of brilliance, and there was some frustration along the way, too, to be sure. I think the positive is from coming off of last year when he wasn't able to maintain health and consistently take the ball -- he did that this year after coming back from the injury in Spring Training. To look where we were with him in March, and where we are now, I think we feel a lot better about it now. Along the way there's been consistent velocity that we hadn't seen the last couple years, and some improvement in the secondary stuff, even as recently as his last couple starts, so again more positive signs to take into the winter."
For all the talk about how the Red Sox missed Pedroia and Youkilis, the team virtually went all season without Ellsbury, who stole 70 bases last year.
His injury was well-documented, as was the fact he wasn't always on the same page as the team's medical staff. But that is all in the past, as the Red Sox look forward to a healthy Ellsbury in 2011.
"We expect him to be healthy and be a significant part of the team, an everyday outfielder for us, and if he does what he's capable of doing, an offensive catalyst and a guy who contributes not only with the bat, but also defensively and on the bases, and picks up where he left off," Epstein said. "Not let this season carry over at all, but pick up where he left off in essence at the end of 2009 and continue his growth as a player and as a major contributor here."
And what about the perceived disconnect between some of the players and the medical staff?
"I think that happens any year you have a lot of injuries. The medical staff, they're like umpires: Nobody notices them or talks about them until there's a year where there's a perception things go wrong, then it's sort of fair game to pile on," said Epstein. "I think we have really good personnel. Our trainers, our doctors, I think we're affiliated with a really good hospital [in Massachusetts General], one of the best in the world.
"And I think we provide quality care for our players. Beyond that, there's the subtleties of the medical operation, communication and making sure everybody is on the same page, and processing the information. That can be tough in a year where there are a lot of injuries. Ultimately, I take responsibility for that.
"That falls within baseball operations, and I have to make sure the systems we have in place are the best they possibly can be and engender trust in the players and everyone else involved in the process. Along the way, we think we've already learned a couple of things and made some adjustments with those systems. Our MO in certain areas have changed and we're continue to look at it this winter, and if there are things we can do differently, and anything we can improve with those systems and with the communication, then we will going forward."
"It's the same as anything else. Baseball [operations] reports to ownership. It's under our supervision; our direct per view, but in this organization, there is synergy between all departments and always involves ownership in the direction that we're headed and how we're going to get there."