BOSTON — "Fire away," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told reporters at the start of his season-ending news conference. And then, because he's seen how things go in Boston when a team doesn't live up to high expectations, he added, "Not literally."
A day after the Red Sox completed an unprecedented September collapse, Epstein told reporters at a somber and largely deserted Fenway Park on Thursday that the entire organization shared the blame for blowing a nine-game lead in 25 days and promised his full effort in figuring out what went wrong.
"The bottom line is, we failed. And our owners deserve better, the fans deserve better and we have to fix it," Epstein said. "We're going to take a look in the mirror and see if we're the ones to fix it."
The Red Sox led the AL East for much of the season and held a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race on the morning of Sept. 4. But Boston went 7-20 in September to blow the lead and miss the playoffs entirely, a collapse that wasn't complete until closer Jonathan Papelbon blew a one-run lead with one strike to go against Baltimore on Wednesday night and the Orioles won 4-3.
Just minutes later, the Rays completed their comeback from a 7-0 deficit against the New York Yankees and clinched the wild-card berth.
"A very quiet day in Boston after a terrible, terrible month for the fans. Night after night they came, they tuned in. Rain, quiet streets," Red Sox owner John Henry wrote on Twitter. "Congratulations to the entire Tampa Bay organization on a miraculous, but well-earned passport to the postseason."
Henry did not respond to a request for comment, and co-owner Tom Werner said he was "still absorbing last night's collapse." But it was not just one night of failure that doomed this team.
The Red Sox lost their first six games and opened the season 2-10, but they went a major league-best 81-42 from then through Aug. 31 to take a comfortable lead in the playoff race. As it slowly disappeared, players insisted they would pull out of the slide in time; but Epstein and manager Terry Francona both acknowledged on Thursday that they saw signs of trouble.
"A lot of things went wrong and a lot of things had to go wrong for us to blow the lead, and they did. But I don't think they were completely unforeseen," Epstein said. "The bottom line is we didn't find a way to stop the slide."
Francona said he called a team meeting earlier in the month in Toronto – even after a 14-0 win. He did not specify what he saw, but said "normally, as a season progresses, there's events that make you care about each other."
"With this team, it didn't happen as much as I wanted it to. I was frustrated about that," he said. "You don't need a team that wants to go out to dinner together. But you need a team that wants to protect each other on the field and be fiercely loyal to each other on the field."
Those problems bubbled to the surface in September, when the Red Sox failed to win consecutive games. Boston finished 90-72, one game behind the Rays and seven behind the archrival New York Yankees; the nine-game lead was the biggest ever held in September by a team that failed to make the playoffs.
"I think we'll be dissecting that forever," Epstein said.
Only a handful of players appeared in the cardboard box-filled Red Sox clubhouse on Thursday afternoon, including Jonathan Papelbon and John Lackey; they did not speak to reporters. Upstairs, Epstein told reporters everything will be evaluated over the offseason, including the front office and the coaching staff.
But Epstein said he would not make a scapegoat of Francona, who led the team to World Series championships in 2004, ending the franchise's 86-year drought, and in 2007. The front office, owners and coaches have already begun meeting to figure out what went wrong, Epstein said, and "nobody blames what happened in September on Tito."
"That would be totally irresponsible and shortsighted," Epstein said. "As an organization we have to look at our successes and failures, and what happened in 2011 – we take full responsibility for it. All of us collectively look at it as a failure. I'm the general manager, so I take more responsibility than anybody.
"But I know we don't believe in scapegoats, particularly blaming Tito for what happened in September. We all failed collectively. We're all together in this; we've got to live with that. We're not pointing fingers at any one person in particular."
The Red Sox reportedly have 10 days to decide whether to pick up the manager's two-year option. Francona said he and Epstein had already approached the topic, but declined to comment on his future.
"It's still pretty fresh," he said, "and pretty raw."
Epstein said the "silver lining" of the team's collapse was that, had the Red Sox made the playoffs, it would have been easier to overlook the shortcomings of the team that played so poorly down the stretch.
No chance of that happening now.
"When you go through what we just went through, you can't look past anything," Epstein said. "We have to take a hard look at every aspect of the organization – myself included."
Among the problems Epstein took the blame for were the decisions on some high-priced free agents. Though he didn't call them mistakes, Epstein acknowledged that the team needs more from both Lackey, who was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million deal, and Carl Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million deal last offseason.
"The rehabilitation of John Lackey," Epstein said, "I think it's a big priority, for obvious reasons."
And the same is true of Crawford, who was at or near career lows with a .255 average, 18 stolen bases, 11 homers and 56 RBIs.
"Carl has taken full and very public responsibility for having a disappointing year," Epstein said. "The next step is, what are you going to do about it."