HOUSTON — Alex Cora could do no wrong. Every move was the right move. Everything worked.
And then he went one step too far. He got cocky and greedy. He thought he could “steal” a game against the Houston Astros (odd phrasing given the history here, but it’s only a figure of speech). He thought he could get away with starting struggling Chris Sale instead of Nate Eovaldi in Game 1 of the ALCS. Cora knew his bullpen was rested and figured that if Sale could just get a few outs, the Sox pen could bring it on home.
It almost worked.
But it did not work. Sale staggered through 2 2/3innings (five hits, one walk, a hit batter, and a wild pitch), then handed a 3-1 lead over to Boston’s well-rested bullpen. It worked for a while, but there simply isn’t enough depth in Boston’s bullpen. Adam Ottavino, Josh Taylor, and Ryan Brasier preserved the lead through the middle innings, but then Tanner Houck and Hansel Robles gave up homers to Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa respectively and the Sox lost the lead. The dam burst in the eighth when Hirokazu Sawamura blew up and the Red Sox were 5-4 losers despite four hits (two more homers!) from Kiké Hernández — the Greatest Player in the History of Baseball.
“We came very close to pulling it off,’’ Cora said, when asked about the challenge of his bullpen getting 19 outs. “Overall, we did a good job.’’
For a while there it looked like Cora could do anything.
I was getting ready to ask the Red Sox manager about rearranging the funds in my 401(k). I was going to ask him for a sure thing at Belmont Park racetrack Sunday. There’s also a time share in Florida I’d been pondering. I thought maybe I’d ask Cora where to get the best meal in Houston and who he likes in Patriots vs. Cowboys Sunday afternoon.
Cora had the hot hand. He was going better than Casey Stengel, Dick Williams, John McGraw, and Terry Francona.
Stay too long with Nick Pivetta in relief? No problem. Pivetta went four innings and got the Game 3 ALDS win in dramatic fashion.
Order Christian Arroyo to bunt, after rarely sacrificing all season? No problem. Arroyo gets the bunt down and the Sox won the clincher with a walkoff sac fly.
Starting Sale seemed like an even bigger gamble. The entire hardball universe figured Eovaldi was a lock to get the ball in the opener.
Sale struggled, but gave the bullpen a two-run lead after getting the second out of the third inning. Sale was greeted like Charles Lindbergh in the Sox dugout. The sports talk world no doubt will go overboard talking up Sale’s performance. They will make him heroic and Koufaxian. They will paint him as Willis Reed and Curt Schilling with the bloody sock.
But he was not. Sale was marginally better than his last three stinkers, but the length of his outing put too much stress on a Red Sox bullpen that is simply not that good.
Boston’s pen was mighty until the sixth. Ottavino, Taylor, and Brasier kept the ‘Stros at bay. But in the sixth, rookie Houck came on and surrendered a single and a game-tying, two-run homer to Altuve.
It was Altuve’s 20th postseason homer. The only other big leaguers with 20 or most postseason homers are Manny Ramirez (29), Bernie Williams (21), and Derek Jeter (20). Pretty good company.
In the seventh, Cora handed the 3-3 game over to Robles, the talented but erratic trade deadline acquisition. Robles got the first two outs, then yielded a long homer to left to Correa. Houston led, 4-3.
“That’s the nature of the game,’’ said Cora. “We got some big outs, but they (Astros) took advantage of two mistakes. We’ll keep doing what we do. We were in the game ‘til the end.’’
Cora almost got the game back in the eighth when he sent Travis Shaw up to hit for Christian Vázquez with one aboard and two outs. Shaw drove a long shot to deep right, but it was gloves short of the fence.
Boston’s bullpen depth was further exposed in the bottom of the eighth when Sawamura, Boston’s seventh pitcher of the night, loaded the bases without getting an out, then gave up a sac fly and was replaced by Martín Pérez.
Eight pitchers in eight innings of work for the Red Sox. Eight Men out. A Game 1 loss.
A manager who finally came back to earth.