Bos­ton’s Cora set to bat­tle fa­mil­iar foe

Ex-Astros bench coach won over Red Sox brass with his ‘bold’ ap­proach

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY DAVE SHEININ

Oct. 15, 2017, was a Sun­day and a day off be­tween Games 2 and 3 of the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries, but as the rest of the Hous­ton Astros’ play­ers and coaches bused from the air­port to Yan­kee Sta­dium for a late-af­ter­noon work­out, bench coach Alex Cora, with his bosses’ per­mis­sion, headed into Man­hat­tan and walked into a suite at the Palace Ho­tel at 51st and Madi­son, where Bos­ton Red Sox Pres­i­dent Dave Dom­browski and a team of his lieu­tenants were wait­ing for him.

By the time they parted ways, Cora had aced his job in­ter­view, and by the time owner John Henry fin­ished speak­ing to Cora by phone a few days later, the Red Sox knew they had their man. On Oct. 22, the day be­fore the Astros played Game 1 of the World Se­ries against the Los An­ge­les Dodgers, the Red Sox an­nounced Cora’s hir­ing as the 47th man­ager in team his­tory, re­plac­ing John Far­rell.

A year later, Cora’s life has come full circle. Af­ter his Red Sox took down the New York Yan­kees in the divi­sion se­ries and the Astros swept the Cleve­land In­di­ans, Cora is re­turn­ing to the ALCS, this time as the man­ager of the Red Sox — against the team that em­ployed him a year ago and the man­ager un­der whom he served in last year’s play­offs, the Astros’ A. J. Hinch. Game 1 is Satur­day night at Fen­way Park.

“I still re­mem­ber walk­ing into that suite with all those [Red Sox] base­ball guys,” Cora said Sept. 22, af­ter the Red Sox had clinched the AL East. “In the be­gin­ning I was a lit­tle bit in­tim­i­dated, but at the end . . . I felt very com­fort­able.”

Cora, who turns 43 next week, ar­rives at this mo­ment in the late stages of what al­ready has been one of the great­est sea­sons for a rookie man­ager in base­ball his­tory, one that has made him a lead­ing can­di­date to be named the league’s man­ager of the year next month. His Red Sox led the ma­jors with 108 wins — the Astros were sec­ond, with 103 — and amid the in­tense scru­tiny of a rare Red Sox-Yan­kees post­sea­son se­ries, his strate­gic moves across those four games drew ef­fu­sive praise from fans, me­dia and, most no­tably, his Red Sox bosses.

“He was a ma­gi­cian,” Henry told re­porters Tues­day night fol­low­ing the clinch­ing Game 4 of the ALDS. “He’s been bold since Day One — since the first day of spring train­ing. Even be­fore spring train­ing, he had ideas about what he wanted to do and what he wanted to change. He just did a tremen­dous job.”

Henry, in fact, had been one of the few mem­bers of the Bos­ton brain trust who had any reser­va­tions about Cora dur­ing the in­ter­view process a year ago. “I went back to [Dom­browski] and I said, ‘Dave, he’s a lit­tle con­fi­dent — in fact, he’s over­con­fi­dent,’ ” Henry said. “But he was born to be a man­ager. He’s a nat­u­ral leader.”

This was the year of the rookie man­ager in base­ball, at least on the East Coast, where five teams — three of which had made the play­offs in 2017 — parted ways with veteran man­agers and hired much younger first-timers to guide their ros­ters.

Most of them stum­bled. Philadel­phia’s Gabe Kapler was get­ting ques­tions about his job se­cu­rity days into the sea­son, af­ter a cou­ple of very pub­lic game-man­age­ment mis­steps. With the New York Mets, Mickey Call­away started the sea­son 11-1 but then found him­self en­gulfed by typ­i­cal Mets dys­func­tion on the way to a fourth-place fin­ish.

Wash­ing­ton’s Dave Mar­tinez had his bullpen us­age crit­i­cized pub­licly by his play­ers and presided over ar­guably the game’s big­gest un­der­achiev­ers. And the Yan­kees’ Aaron Boone was blasted in the me­dia for his ques­tion­able pitch­ing moves in the piv­otal losses in Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS. The Mets and Na­tion­als had been among the teams ex­press­ing in­ter­est in Cora last fall be­fore he went to the Red Sox.

“There were two teams that called,” Cora said in Septem­ber, “and I’m like, ‘No, I’m good. I’m in the mid­dle of the process, and we’re go­ing some­where else.’ It felt good be­cause I’d been — not fight­ing for it, but [go­ing through the in­ter­view process] for a few years, and to tell some­body no, it was, ‘Hey, I’m in power now.’ This is the place I wanted to be.”

Against the back­drop of the strug­gles of his fel­low rookie man­agers, as well as the sin­gu­lar in­ten­sity of the Bos­ton me­dia, Cora’s per­for­mance has been re­mark­able. That was never more so than in the divi­sion se­ries, when, in stark con­trast to Boone’s mis­steps, he showed an un­canny knack for mak­ing pre­cisely the right moves at pre­cisely the right times — from us­ing starter Rick Por­cello in a sta­bi­liz­ing re­lief ap­pear­ance in Game 1 to start­ing re­serve in­fielder Brock Holt at sec­ond base in Game 3 (and get­ting re­warded with the first cy­cle in post­sea­son his­tory) to his im­pec­ca­ble nav­i­ga­tion of the fi­nal 12 outs in Tues­day night’s clincher at Yan­kee Sta­dium.

One move in par­tic­u­lar demon­strated Cora’s deft han­dling of su­per­stars and sit­u­a­tions. When ace Chris Sale, the victor in Game 1, first ap­proached Cora and said he was pre­pared to pitch in re­lief Tues­day night, Cora lit­er­ally laughed it off. But the Red Sox were sure to send Sale to their bullpen Tues­day night, and af­ter hud­dling with his coach­ing staff dur­ing the sev­enth in­ning, Cora made the call to bring Sale in to pitch the eighth.

“Every­body was on board,” Cora re­called. “I even shouted to the dugout: ‘Hey, we’re all in. He’s com­ing in.’ ”

“That’s what was sort of miss­ing the last cou­ple of years,” Henry said of Cora’s de­ci­sive­ness. “I didn’t think we were very ag­gres­sive in gen­eral.”

Af­ter the Red Sox clinched the divi­sion, Cora made the de­ci­sion to rest most of his core play­ers — Mookie Betts, An­drew Ben­in­tendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xan­der Bo­gaerts, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Mar­tinez — the next night in Cleve­land. But alone among them, Mar­tinez re­fused to sit, re­spond­ing to a text mes­sage from Cora, in­form­ing him he wouldn’t be play­ing, by re­ply­ing, “Yes, I’m play­ing.” Mar­tinez started at des­ig­nated hit­ter the next night.

“We’re for­tu­nate to have in A.C. a guy who is not very far re­moved from play­ing the game, which def­i­nitely helps,” re­liever Matt Barnes said of Cora, who played from 1998 to 2011 and spent parts of four sea­sons as a Red Sox util­ity in­fielder. “He un­der­stands the game. He does a great job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with every­body about what’s go­ing on.”

It is Cora’s in­tense loy­alty that will be at the cen­ter of the di­a­logue in the early stages of the ALCS, in par­tic­u­lar his de­ci­sion, an­nounced Wed­nes­day, to start veteran lefty David Price against the Astros in Game 2 on Sun­day night at Fen­way Park de­spite Price’s 0-9 record as a starter in the post­sea­son, with his most re­cent stum­ble com­ing in a 12/3in­ning dud in Game 2 of the ALDS that saw him booed off the Fen­way mound.

Af­ter that game, Cora re­mained adamant that Price would re­main one of his start­ing pitch­ers go­ing for­ward rather than mov­ing him to a bullpen role. Cora has de­fended Price by bring­ing up Justin Ver­lan­der, the Astros’ sched­uled starter in Game 1, who had a 5.57 ERA in eight starts in his first two trips to the post­sea­son and only later be­came one of the great post­sea­son pitch­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, win­ning MVP hon­ors in last fall’s ALCS.

“No­body re­mem­bers that he wasn’t very good early in his ca­reer in the play­offs,” Cora told re­porters. “And now he’s kind of like the poster child of play­off base­ball.”

If the choice to start Price goes at all like the ma­jor­ity of Cora’s other moves this month, he will throw seven score­less in­nings against the Astros. Or else Price will flame out again, and Cora will fig­ure out an­other way to get through the rest of the game. It’s not sup­posed to be so easy, and it typ­i­cally isn’t, which is pre­cisely why the Red Sox feel so for­tu­nate to have Cora guid­ing them this Oc­to­ber.

BILL KOSTROUN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Red Sox named Alex Cora their next man­ager just be­fore the World Se­ries started last sea­son.

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