ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Alex Cora managed two seasons of winter ball in Puerto Rico. There was spring training, too. He knows the job.
But Thursday will be the first time he manages a team — his team — in a major league game that counts. This isn’t filling in when the manager gets ejected, as happened last season in Houston. This is the fulfillment of a dream Cora has had for years.
“For this day to arrive and being able to do it is awesome,” he said. “But honestly, there’s no difference. I’ve been in a great place as a person for quite a while. This past year, I learned a lot throughout the year. It was a great year personally. I’m surrounded by a lot of people who made that year special.
“Am I excited about it? Yeah. Am I nervous about it? Not really.”
Cora said he felt more pressure as general manger of the team Puerto Rico sent to the World Baseball Classic last season. They advanced to the championship game before losing to the United States.
“The expectations on that team were unreal,” he said. “It was either make it to the final or win it. When you’re the GM of your national team, everyone was looking at us.
“So this is awesome, I’m the manager of the Boston Red Sox. But at the same time, all those experiences helped me to be calm and ready for this challenge.”
Cora joked that if he didn’t get enough sleep on Wednesday, it would only be because his 8-month-old twins kept him awake.
Rays manager Kevin Cash, who played with Cora on the 2007-08 Red Sox, is happy to be part of his big day.
“We talked a bunch when he got the job,” Cash said. “He had probably as exciting an offseason as anybody in baseball, winning the World Series and getting the Red Sox job.
“Alex is a great baseball mind and has the personality to connect with players. I’m looking forward to shaking his hand on Opening Day.”
Back home again
For Chris Sale, pitching Opening Day at Tropicana Field will bring back warm memories. The first major league game he ever attended was the first game in Rays’ history, March 31, 1998, against Detroit.
A day after he turned 9, Sale went to the game with his uncle.
“I sat just to the left of [section] 144,” Sale said, pointing to the bleachers in right field. “I had a Rays jersey on. My uncle bought me a polo with Rays colors, the blue and the green and the white and I got mustard on it. That’s where the jersey came from.
“I actually have a panoramic picture at my house of the first pitch being thrown here.”
Sale, who grew up in Lakeland, Fla., will have a large group of family and friends at the game.
The Rays are celebrating their 20th anniversary throughout the season. The 1998 team will be honored on Saturday, with Hall of Famer Wade Boggs expected to be part of the group.
Eduardo Rodriguez decided before spring training that he wanted to wear No. 57 to pay tribute to one of his heroes, the great Venezuelan pitcher Johan Santana. Third base coach Carlos Febles had 57 and he gave it up to Rodriguez.
Normally that would be it, coaches give up their numbers to players all the time.
But Cora playfully nudged Rodriguez, saying he had to do something to compensate Febles. After a while, it built up to Rodriguez buying dinner for the entire team.
That was Tuesday night at the 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House in St. Petersburg. According to Cora, 56 people showed up. Every player and coach in the travel party was on hand along with assorted staff members. It wasn’t mandatory, either.
Rodriguez was not stuck with the bill, by the way. Several well-compensated teammates kicked in.
“I’ve never been on a team that the whole travel group was in one same room,” Cora said. “It was awesome. It was something that we will always remember. Whatever happens throughout the season, we can go back to that day.
“We’ve been talking about connecting and all that and having fun. You know what? At the end of the day, it’s what they do. This is a good group. They care about each other. It was eye-opening and it was pretty cool to be with them.”
The Rays were planning to start Nathan Eovaldi on Sunday. But the righthander has “loose bodies” in his elbow and will have arthroscopic surgery. He was placed on the disabled list. Righthander Jake Faria will start in his place . . . Not much can help the atmosphere at dingy Tropicana Field, but the Rays installed new turf for aesthetic purposes. It’s the same model of Shaw Sports turf used before, just a different shade of green.
With Dustin Pedroia officially going on the disabled list on Thursday, his streak of 11 Opening Day starts will end. Mark Loretta started in 2006 and Eduardo Nunez is set to start Thursday . . . The Red Sox will have five different Opening Day starters in the last five years. Sale follows Rick Porcello, David Price, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester. They also will have six different catchers in six years with Christian Vazquez coming after Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart, Ryan Hanigan, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia . . . At 21 years and 156 days, Rafael Devers would become the second youngest Opening Day starter at third base for the Sox. Luis Alvarado was 21 years and 82 days old when the Sox opened the 1970 season at New York against the Yankees.