The American League Championship Series has yet to begin, but it’s not too early to ask the pressing question on the minds of Red Sox Nation.
Can this team win it all?
It’s neither a crazy nor a premature suggestion. For a franchise that has hung banners as recently as 2018 and done it four times since 2004 (2007 and 2013 too), the expectation of a championship is always in play.
Behind a leader who has yet to lose a postseason series as either manager or bench coach, the résumé of success is there too. And with a roster emboldened by a belief not limited to each player’s individual skills, but that spreads evenly through what they have in every other guy’s ability to deliver when needed, it sure feels like another special stew is simmering in Boston.
“You know what? I woke up today and I was like, ‘We’re four games away from the World Series,’ ” manager Alex Cora said Wednesday at Fenway Park, shortly before leading his team in its last workout prior to leaving for Houston. “We win four games and we’re right there.”
So … in other words … yes? This team can win it all?
“To answer your question, yeah, I feel that we’ve got a chance to win the World Series,” Cora said. “Offensively, we are where we really wanted to be. By accident maybe, because this lineup [came together after] J.D. [Martinez] got hurt, but now we have this balance, the at-bats are getting better. We feel good where we’re at. In 2018, it was, ‘You win 11,′ and now we’re at eight games.
“We need to win eight more games. We’ve done that before.”
What Cora spoke to was the acknowledgement of a championship vibe, that undefinable, somewhat indescribable mix of confidence and experience (and perhaps a little bit of arrogance) that tells the players their time is now. It’s something that can grow slowly across an entire season, building month by month, or it can coalesce in a seeming eye-blink, when the jumbled pieces of an up-and-down season suddenly settle into place.
Cast this version of the Sox in the latter formula, unlike the 2018 team that Martinez described Monday night as one that “had the horses” and played under “the pressure not to win.”
“This year we don’t have that,” he said. “None of the media, nobody here, counted us to be here. For us to be here, it shows it doesn’t matter wherever you start the season, as long as you go out there and play and compete.
“Everyone here is hungry, everyone here wants to go out and prove it. We’ve got a lot of guys that have kind of been written off in other places; they want to show what they can do.”
No matter how many times the season careened through lows that made this ALCS appearance seem impossible, the Red Sox just kept rising again. No sweep at the hands of the Orioles to open the season or sweep at the hands of the Yankees near the close of it could erode their inner belief. No string of COVID-dictated roster replacements or jumble of assorted lineups could deliver that knockout punch.
They just kept getting up for more, and now they are driven by the confidence that they can both deliver and absorb the blows needed to keep on winning. Just look at the Monday night, ninth-inning rally to clinch the ALDS. It was a fundamental baseball fan’s dream that featured a pinch hitter, a pinch runner, a sacrifice bunt, and a sacrifice fly.
“That’s our motto right now: Whatever it takes to win,” is how Kiké Hernández described it after hitting the sac fly to beat the favored Rays. “Just win today, and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Lineup, bullpen, starting rotation, like, it doesn’t matter. We’re a team, and we’re one. We’re not 26 dudes, we’re just one.”
One behind Cora, who won a title with these Astros as their bench coach in 2017 and led the Sox to the title in his managerial debut a year later.
He, too, is driven by having something to prove, still shrouded by his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that resulted in his one-year suspension. Cora was out of baseball in 2020, and by the time he returned, the game had changed (filled now with COVID protocols), his bosses had changed (he’d yet to really work with new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom), and many of his championship players had changed (so long, Mookie Betts, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi).
But his magic touch remained, one reclaimed reliever Garrett Whitlock described this week as “a guy you’d run through a wall for.” Whitlock wasn’t just resorting to cliché. As he further explained, you don’t run through the wall simply because Cora tells you to, but because “if he told me to run through that wall, I’d believe that he had something there to make sure it would fall for me.”
It’s a belief Alex Verdugo chose a different cliché to describe Monday night, when he was still soaked in champagne and said, “He’s out there playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers.”
The result is that the Red Sox are still playing baseball. One of the final four, with eight games to go to a title.
“We have to keep working hard for what we have, and the team we’re going to face is really good. They are,” Cora said. “At the same time, they know we are really good too.
“When people start talking about us that way, it’s like, ‘Oh OK, we’ve got something special going on here.’ But we’ve got to keep working, keep getting better.”