By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
At the post-mortem press conference held Thursday at Fenway Park, it didn't take long for the topic of Terry Francona's job security to be broached.
"Obviously, it's a question you have to ask," acknowledged general manager Theo Epstein. "Tito and I spent some time talking today, just kind of catching up about the season and talking about what the next few days will look like. We're going to get together -- ownership, Larry (Lucchino CEO), I and Tito -- over the next few days and talk about the season and talk about the future.
"We're less than 24 hours removed from the end of the season, so we need some time to calm down, get objective and look at ourselves, look at 2011 and look ahead and make best decisions for everybody."
That wasn't exactly the most strongly worded backing for a manager believed to be on the hot seat. There was no declaration that Francona will indeed return for 2012, for which the Red Sox hold a 4.25 million option.
Instead, there was this:
"I can't answer that question without saying that we've already talked about it -- John (Henry), Tom (Werner), Larry and I -- and nobody blames what happened in September on Tito. That would be totally irresponsible, totally shortsighted and wouldn't recognize everything that he means to the organization and to all our successes, including, at times, during 2011."
More than once Epstein reiterated a similar show of support for Francona, but each time, parsed his words carefully. Each time, the point was made that Francona wouldn't be blamed for the spectacular face-plant the Sox performed in September.
"No one blames Tito for what happened in September," said Epstein.
Again, the qualifier: "In September."
But missing the playoffs for the second straight year? There was no absolution coming for that, as if that matter was still open for debate.
And perhaps it is, among Red Sox management and ownership. Perhaps the disastrous 7-20 mark in September that sent the Red Sox home for the offseason following a cruel 4-3 loss Wednesday at Camden Yards is being removed from the debate.
There were more tea leaves to read, too. There was Francona's body language, which was more than a little off-putting -- arms folded, brow furrowed, eyes frequently downcast.
If there was a place Francona would less like to be, it's hard to imagine one.
Answering questions about a failed playoff race and a premature start on winter can't be fun. But Francona looked like a man awaiting a double root canal.
Speculation about Francona's future with the organization actually began two weeks ago when Peter Gammons went on The Dan Patrick Show and talked about a growing "disconnect" between Epstein and Francona.
Epstein did his best to dismiss the rift when he spoke with reporters at Yankee Stadium last Friday. He insisted that the Red Sox were not dysfunctional and added that he and Francona had a good laugh over all the attention given to Gammons' comments.
There were no smiles Thursday, however, as Epstein and Francona performed the public autopsy of the late, not-so-great 2011 Red Sox season.
Meanwhile, the silence from ownership has been defeaning. More than once in the last three weeks, as the Red Sox' wild card lead seemed to shrivel almost daily, Francona was asked by beat writers if he had heard anything from ownership -- a text message, perhaps, offering support, or a phone call for morale-buidling.
Each time, Francona had the same simple answer: No.
Perhaps Francona himself had read the tea leaves. How else to explain his unwillingness to answer in the affirmative when asked if he wants to return for a ninth season in the Red Sox dugout?
"Theo and I talked today and will continue to talk tomorrow," said Francona. "Maybe it's best, today, to stay with where we're at . . . Fair question. I would rather focus on the other stuff today, if that's OK. It's a fair question."
More than fair, it may be the most relevant question as the offseason gets underway much sooner than expected.