Cora’s magic runs out
Overconfidence in Sale leads to loss
Chris Sale threw his hardest pitch in three years, twirled around in a circle, pumped his fist, screamed into his glove and stormed into the dugout after the fourth inning.
If ever there was a sign that a starting pitcher had left it all on the field, this was it.
He had completed three innings for the first time in nearly a month. He had thrown a 98.5 mph fastball for the first time since Aug. 12, 2018. He was three batters shy of going through the Astros’ lineup twice. And Tanner Houck, the perfect piggy-back option in that he pitches like Sale but from the right-hand side, was well-rested in the bullpen.
Alex Cora could’ve pulled the plug there, but he didn’t, and now Boston fans will be left wondering if Cora’s magic has finally run dry.
That was the inescapable question after the Red Sox took their second consecutive beating at Fenway Park on Wednesday, when they lost, 9-1, to the Astros to fall behind 3-2 in the American League Championship Series, which heads back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday.
After an intense fourth inning, Cora gave Sale a chance to handle the bottom of the order in the fifth, which Sale did, mowing down the ’Stros last three hitters on just eight pitches, though not a single fastball was thrown harder than 95 mph, a sign that he might be tiring.
Sale was at 79 pitches, his highest total in nearly a month. He had thrown just 91 pitches combined in his first two postseason starts.
“I had to leave everything out there,” Sale said. “I told myself coming into this game I had a job to do and didn’t get it done. But I left my nuts out there on the mound tonight, that’s for damn sure.”
Still, Cora sent him back out for the sixth, about to face the lineup a third time, something that Cora has mostly avoided while Red Sox pitchers have been one of the worst teams in the majors at pitching against teams the third time through the order.
During the regular season, Sox pitchers allowed a .301 average, 27th in MLB, and .908 OPS, 28th, when facing a lineup the third time. In the postseason, Cora had allowed just 15 at-bats a third time through against his pitchers, and hitters had an .800 OPS in those at-bats.
For Sale, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery and having given everything he had in five-plus innings of work, it was a tall task.
He started the sixth by walking Jose Altuve on five pitches. He got weak contact from Michael Brantley, but Kyle Schwarber dropped the catch from Rafael Devers at first base and suddenly Sale was in trouble. Alex Bregman hit a weak groundout to bring up Yordan Alvarez, who was 3-for-3 off Sale in his career, including two hits earlier in the game.
The left-on-left matchup was advantageous on paper, but Alvarez seemed fooled by nothing Sale had to offer. In the second inning, Sale threw a 94-mph fastball that was at least a few inches off the plate, and still Alvarez destroyed it opposite-field over the Green Monster.
He mashed another fastball on the outer half for a single in the fourth.
Cora let him face Alvarez a third time in the sixth.
Again Alvarez got a fastball on the outer half, and again he smoked it to left field. Two runs scored, the Astros took a 3-0 lead and the momentum was all theirs.
Ryan Brasier struggled in relief of Sale and the Astros scored five in the inning to put the Sox away.
Asked about the decision to leave Sale in for that atbat, Cora was confident it was the right move.
“He was throwing the ball great,” the manager said. “There was some weak contact throughout the night. He was in command … Sometimes we get caught up too much in the third time through the order. He was throwing the ball great. The stuff was really good. He was throwing 97 mph with a good slider.”
Sale said he felt as good in the sixth inning as he had all night, but he hadn’t thrown a pitch harder than 95 mph since the 98.5 mph pitch in the fourth.
“I understand what people think, but there were two lefties coming up in that pocket,” Cora said. “Chris Sale is a lefty, he’s made a living getting lefties out. You have to tip your hat to the kid, to the guy, he didn’t try too much and he goes the other way.”
Cora might be the only manager in the postseason who thinks there’s too much made about the third time through the order. Few managers are allowing their starters to do it these days.
There have been just 96 atbats facing a pitcher the third time through during the entire postseason. And hitters are batting .271 with a .789 OPS in those at-bats.
In the age of analytics, when teams are using data to make so many of their decisions ahead of time, it’s hard to fault the manager for using his eyes in this game. He saw a pitcher throwing as well as he has in years and wanted to stick with him.
It didn’t work.