HOUSTON — The grounds crew was nearly finished cleaning the orange and blue confetti off the field by the time the final group of Red Sox players and coaches left Minute Maid Park at 12:20 on Saturday morning, bound for the offseason.
Outside of Alex Verdugo, who seemed on the verge of tears as he left the clubhouse, there was little in their demeanor that suggested defeat.
Even game-planning coach Jason Varitek, who can be stoic in the happiest of times, cracked a smile.
“That’s it,” he said.
The Houston Astros had sent the Red Sox home with a 5-0 victory in Game 6 of the ALCS. The better team won, Houston taking the final three games in overwhelming fashion.
The Red Sox were a team that struggled to find consistency in the second half of the season, and that was how the series played out.
You wondered if the series would go back to Houston after the Sox won Games 2 and 3, that’s how impressively they played. Then, without warning, the Sox scored only three runs over the next three games.
It was a sign of a team still under construction but going in the right direction under Chaim Bloom and Alex Cora. That’s what allowed for smiles as Friday night turned into Saturday morning.
“I’m good. I’m really good, to be honest with you,” said Cora, who was rescued from baseball purgatory by the Sox and earned their faith. “Obviously disappointed and sad that we didn’t pull this off. But I’ve been good for a while.
“There were a lot of good things that happened, not only professionally but personally, that I was able to see a lot of people enjoy baseball again.”
Those folks should have plenty to embrace next season. Based on WAR, the Sox have nine of their top 12 position players under team control for next season.
J.D. Martinez holds a $19.35 million option for 2022 he’s likely to exercise. The other exceptions are free agents Kyle Schwarber and José Iglesias.
Schwarber had a terrific two-plus months in Boston, but fitting him on the roster long term would require creativity unless Martinez opts for free agency.
“This is a World Series clubhouse, and I would love to hopefully see if that opportunity comes back,” Schwarber said.
On the pitching side, 15 of the 17 players who had significant roles are under control.
The Sox hold contract options on Garrett Richards and Martín Pérez they are likely to decline. Richards, who pitched well in relief after failing as a starter, is a candidate for a reworked deal as he enjoyed playing in Boston.
Eduardo Rodriguez and Adam Ottavino will be free agents. Rodriguez pitched better than his 13-8 record and 4.74 ERA suggested. He walked fewer, struck out more, and limited hard contact.
Rodriguez will enter his age-28 season having made 65 of a possible 68 starts the last two seasons he played while posting a 4.21 ERA in the American League East.
He’s going to be paid handsomely, whether it’s by the Red Sox or another team.
Taking Rodriguez out of the equation, the Sox have Nate Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Nick Pivetta returning as starters with Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock likely to be developed as rotation pieces.
That’s not enough depth to get through a season, but it’s a good start.
There are other issues. The Sox made an alarming number of fundamental mistakes defensively and running the bases that need clearing up. That could result in changes within the coaching staff.
Both Varitek and bench coach Will Venable would be good candidates for open managerial jobs with the Cardinals, Mets, and Padres. Perhaps they’re not leading candidates, but both men are on that path.
Bloom’s history suggests he will consider trading most anybody and will surely make some unexpected news this winter. Your idea of an untouchable player is almost certainly not his.
Bloom also could have other changes he wants to make after observing the Sox over a full season for the first time. But he now understands why Cora was such a perfect fit for the Sox in 2018 and still is.
The Sox advanced as far as they did because Cora saw ways around obstacles. As the team grows, he grows with them as a manager.
It all points to the Red Sox reassembling in Fort Myers, Fla., with realistic expectations to return to the ALCS and this time go beyond.
“It’s special. We have a chance here to be a good team for a very long time,” center fielder Kiké Hernández said. “The core is considerably young, still. We have some young arms that are more than capable of not only in the rotation but in the bullpen, as well.
“There’s not that many guys that are reaching toward the end of their career, which is always a good thing.
“I think moments like [the ALCS] makes a group come back stronger … I think the Red Sox are going to be a problem for a long time.”