clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Coming Up Aces: Alex Cora’s Bold Moves Pay Off Against the Yankees

The first-year Boston manager wasn’t afraid to use starters in high-leverage relief situations or make dramatic lineup changes in the team’s series against New York. Will his aggressive approach work when he meets his old team this weekend?

Rick Porcello, Alex Cora, and Brock Holt Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Chris Sale, a praying mantis who grew up to be a baseball player, stood on the mound in Yankee Stadium. A cacophony greeted him. The Red Sox were six outs from the American League Championship Series and held a 4-1 advantage Tuesday. The Yankees had six outs with which to score three runs to keep their 100-win season alive.

Sale hit 94.4 mph on the gun against Gleyber Torres, then got him to pop out on a changeup. He hit 96.4 against Andrew McCutchen, then got him to ground out on the next pitch. And with Aaron Hicks sitting on the fastball, Sale sat him down with three consecutive off-speed pitches for strikes.

Boston’s Cy Young candidate strode to the visiting dugout and stalked around like a hungry heron eyeing a shiny shape in shallow water. He’d thrown only 13 pitches in the inning. Maybe he’d convince manager Alex Cora to let him finish things. After all, he was on four days’ rest, and his teammates had graciously handled the first seven innings of this potential closeout game for him.

One of the best starters in the bigs was in the game for one of the highest-leverage innings of the season, but not because he’d dominated the Sox’s biggest rival all night long. He was there because his manager believes in going all out to win now, and figuring out tomorrow later.

Alex Cora wants to “win every pitch.” And because he’s not afraid to try to do just that, the Red Sox’s season just got a little longer.

In his first year as a big league manager, Alex Cora made a decision that could have been received one of two ways: as an inspirational success, or as unintentional comedy.

After every Boston win, Cora has a photo of a key moment from the game printed out and hung on his office wall. The idea being that as the wins pile up, the gallery grows and highlights the diverse contributions of the many members of the team.

Make a crucial pitch, hit a decisive homer, snag a diving liner and help the team win, and you might wind up on the wall.

Of course, had things fallen apart and had new additions to the wall been few and far between, it would’ve been a visual representation of mediocrity. A corny idea from a young manager trying to find a way to lead a group of colleagues who are closer to his peers than is typical in baseball’s old boys’ club. (At 42, Cora is only six years older than midseason addition Ian Kinsler.)

But the new manager’s aggressive approach—urging his offensive stars to swing early and often, and encouraging his pitchers to flood the zone with strikes—jelled almost immediately with a talented roster. The Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, running away with the majors’ best record and the AL East title despite sharing the division with a Yankees team that also posted a win total in triple digits. They boast an MVP candidate in Mookie Betts, a Cy Young candidate in Sale, and a flame-throwing closer in Craig Kimbrel.

As the team has reached ever higher heights, so has the “win wall”—which has overflowed onto a second surface in Cora’s office. Once word got out about it, the team’s marketing department brought it to the masses. Now ticket holders can take selfies in front of an Instagram-friendly replica of Cora’s art project underneath the right-field stands, and, about an hour before Game 2 on Saturday, a few of them were doing just that. A middle-aged guy in an Andrew Benintendi jersey snapped a selfie. A young dude with a white Sox jersey over his hoodie posed for a shot. And a kid in an Aaron Judge jersey, glove in hand, took his turn too.

“The cool thing is you go through [the photos] and you do remember the game,” Cora told WBUR’s Shira Springer. “The walkoffs early in the season, David [Price] turning around his season, the walkoff by Benny [Andrew Benintendi] against the Yankees, the grand slam by Xander [Bogaerts], the grand slam by Mookie [Betts] ...”

As the playoffs began, there were 11 empty frames waiting to be filled in. After the Sox’s series-clinching 4-3 nail-biter Tuesday, there will be just eight blank spots left.

One of the photos Cora selected during the regular season is of Rick Porcello, standing on second base with a batting helmet on his head and a sheepish grin on his face. The starter had just driven in three runs with a double … off Max Scherzer, of all people.

The snapshot is a freeze-frame of a fun moment and an illustration that people can contribute in surprising ways when given a chance and a sense of confidence in a shared approach. That’s a lesson Cora learned in his previous life, one that’s paid dividends for the Sox all season.

“Might say [it was Plan] C and a half.”

That’s how far down Alex Cora’s game plan you’d have to go before you found “use Porcello in relief in Game 1.” And that option was surely there in part because of what Cora experienced firsthand with the Astros last season, when he served as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach during Houston’s World Series–winning campaign.

In need of a relief boost, Hinch deployed starters Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. out of the bullpen in key spots, with the former helping to close out the ALDS against Boston and the latter firing curveball after curveball to seal Game 7 of the ALCS against New York.

“One thing I learned last year, to win a World Series is going to take 25, 27 guys … regardless of their roles,” Cora said in the Red Sox interview room as Friday night turned to Saturday morning. “To get 27 outs at this stage right now is very difficult. And sometimes you have to go to Plan B or Plan C.”

Plan A went great in Game 1, as Sale dominated for five innings and left with two runners on base and one out in the sixth, ahead 5-0. Plans B and C, not so much. After the ace exited, the parade of relievers Cora called on combined for a grand total of five outs, let seven runners reach base, threw two wild pitches, and gave up three runs.

And so, desperate for outs to bridge the gap to Kimbrel, Cora called for Plan “C and a half,” presumptive Game 3 starter Porcello. “[He] called down in the eighth, said I was in the game,” the veteran right-hander said. “I was definitely a little surprised, but excited for that opportunity. What am I going to say, no?”

Porcello came in throwing strikes, something his teammates had struggled to do, and got two quick outs before Torres reached on an infield tapper that died in the grass just inside the third-base line. With the top of the lineup looming, Cora went to Kimbrel for a four-out save, and the closer delivered (despite allowing a Judge homer in the ninth).

To use a starter in relief so early in the series, potentially throwing the rest of the rotation into question in the process, could read as panicky (and likely would have, had Porcello imploded). But to Cora, it’s simple logic.

“We’ll try to win tonight,” Cora said of his philosophy ahead of Game 2. “It’s a short series. Whenever you have a chance to win a ballgame, you’re all in, and you use all your weapons. After that we’ll make adjustments.”

Make adjustments he did, and outside of a lousy inning of relief from Eduardo Rodriguez that all but wrapped up Game 2 for the Yankees—the lefty was late to cover first on an infield hit then served up a monster three-run homer to Gary Sánchez—the Boston boss pulled all the right strings. Porcello helped bridge the gap in Game 1. Brock Holt provided a huge boost in Game 3, entering the lineup for Ian Kinsler and proceeding to hit for the first cycle in postseason history.

(Holt stayed hot in his postgame TV interview. Not only did the Red Sox utility man spot the Gatorade bath coming, but he also had both the presence of mind and the good manners to warn sideline reporter Lauren Shehadi in time to spare her the worst of the splatter. “A gentleman!” she remarked, before the two resumed the interview as though nothing had happened.)

Pushed up to Game 3 because of Porcello’s extracurricular activity, Nathan Eovaldi dazzled in seven one-run innings against the Yankees (whom he’s dominated since president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski picked him up from Tampa Bay in July). And with the Sox looking to close out the series in Game 4, Porcello took the ball and attacked the strike zone early and often, setting the Yankees down in just eight pitches in the first, nine pitches in the second, and 11 pitches in the third. And after the Sox struck for three runs in the third against 38-year-old CC Sabathia and Porcello escaped a jam in the fifth allowing only one run, Cora went to the pen.

With a berth in the ALCS at his fingertips, Cora managed like there was no tomorrow. After getting clean innings from Matt Barnes in the sixth and Ryan Brazier in the seventh—two relievers whose shaky outings in Game 1 had necessitated the Porcello relief appearance to begin with—Cora went for the hammer with Sale.

Considering the Red Sox had a three-run lead at the time, calling on the team’s ace and presumptive Game 5 starter if the Yankees rallied seemed like an unnecessary risk. Would the Sox really be willing to send Sale back out to start Thursday on one day’s rest if the worst happened Tuesday? Or would their postseason fate fall to the Game 2 loser, David Price, conquering his postseason demons against the team that’s most tormented him?

After Sale sailed through the eighth, Kimbrel was wild. The Yankees were patient. Judge walked on four pitches, and the tying run was on deck. In a blink, the bases were loaded and the House That Ruth (Sort of) Built was rocking. The lead was down to two. Then one. And then Torres topped a ball to Eduardo Núñez, whose throw barely beat the All-Star shortstop to the bag and ensured that all of Cora’s machinations were not for naught.

In 2017, Cora was on the bench as Verlander shut the door on Boston to set up a championship series with New York. In 2018, Cora followed Hinch’s example and sent his ace to help Boston close out New York and set up a championship series with Houston.

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that Cora is playing with fire in the postseason. It’s unclear whether Sale will be able to start Game 1 against the Astros on Saturday. But before convention comes invention, and in his quest to fill those last blank spots on his wall with technicolor memories, Alex Cora has proved he’ll hold nothing back.