Alex Cora used the word to describe his team’s sloppy play against the Rangers after a 10-1 loss that featured five errors on Saturday. But if the manager described the Red Sox’ lapses in such absolute terms — both in addressing the team after the contest and in his postgame remarks to the media — what does it say that the mistakes continued in the following days?
The Sox remained mistake-prone in victories on Monday (against the Rangers) and Tuesday (against the Twins), then suffered an agonizing extra-inning loss to the Twins on Wednesday in which catcher Christian Vázquez failed to score from second on a two-out single because he forgot the number of outs and Alex Verdugo stood in the batter’s box to admire a ball that clanged off the Wall, then got thrown out after rounding too far from first.
“Forgetting the outs is always hard [to watch]. Not running out of the box is tough to see,” Cora said on Thursday. “We just keep pounding it, keep talking about it. For now, obviously, it’s not working 100 percent, but I do believe I’ve got a good sense, a good pulse with those situations, how to handle it.”
Cora is considered an exceptional evaluator and a great communicator. In spring training in 2018, one Red Sox official raised an eyebrow of concern about some sloppiness that had taken place at the start of camp — when the team had won just two of 10 games while committing a slew of errors — before identifying a source of reassurance.
“Alex will take care of it,” the official said.
The team won its next nine games and 14 of the next 15 to conclude spring training, then went 17-2 when games started counting to commence the winningest season in Red Sox history.
On the way to a title, there were times when Cora didn’t like how his team was playing. Sometimes, he addressed the team directly to achieve an immediate elevation of its play. More often, he could trust players to police their own conduct or to have a small group of veterans relay something that he’d communicated to them.
That comfort reflected Cora’s playing career, during which he held his teammates to a high standard in terms of their game awareness and execution. If he saw lapses in effort or attention to detail, he didn’t mind directly addressing other players.
Other Red Sox players this century — Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Dustin Pedroia (since literally the first professional game of his career), Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and Mookie Betts — likewise helped forge championship cultures based on player accountability and personal responsibility. In their most successful times, players established or at least enforced the standards for what was and was not acceptable on the field.
During the team’s August swoon, the Sox have not been able to rely on similar internal messaging from the players. J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts organized a players-only meeting on Monday morning, at which those two and Chris Sale spoke. The theme?
“This is our group. This is who we are. We know we have got each other’s backs. We’re going to take it one day at a time and win each day,” reliever Garrett Whitlock summarized on the WEEI postgame show on Monday.
But when the team followed it just two days later with the costly misplays by Vázquez and Verdugo, there was self-recognition on the part of both about the mistakes that were made, but with little effort among the other players to reinforce the standards of acceptable play.
On one hand, that’s a bit surprising both given the recent meeting and the fact that the team prided itself at the start of the season on the quality of execution in base running, defense, and situational hitting that helped it to a spectacular start.
Through July 5, the Red Sox did a remarkable job of their execution in those finer points. One American League scout, trying to make sense of the first-place standing of a Red Sox team he saw as less talented than other AL East teams, shrugged his shoulders and arrived at what he considered an obvious conclusion to explain the team’s performance: “Cora Magic.”
Yet the performance wasn’t just “Cora Magic.” It was a reflection of a solid talent base elevated by players who had been locked in on the details and execution that make the difference in tight games.
All the same, the effort to return to that standard in the subsequent seven weeks of struggle has seemed to be primarily top-down rather than player-driven. In that regard, the Sox are not alone in how they are navigating such a period. Evaluators see in baseball a decline in player-to-player coaching, a product of a showcase era of amateur baseball where far more attention is given to developing player tools than skills.
Good teams that are together for longer periods tend to be the ones to forge player-driven cultures of accountability. But the 2021 Red Sox feature a number of players who are relatively young and others who are relatively new to the team after free agent deals, waiver claims, and trades in the last one to two years.
The chief candidates to lead aren’t in a position to establish the line. Martinez is enmeshed in his own deep struggles; his current focus is working his way out of them. Bogaerts prefers to lead by example. Sale, whose epic Game 4 World Series dugout rant altered the tone of the 2018 run to the title, is still feeling his way back and reintegrating himself.
The Red Sox are a team still rebuilding its collective competitive identity. In such a state, it’s been hard for them to create the culture to reestablish the attention to detail needed to reverse their August swoon, creating a mystifying muddle through the summer.