For a while, they were lumped together — Alex Cora and Aaron Boone — as rookie managers of the American League superpower Red Sox and Yankees, respectively. Now, however, there’s separation. Cora keeps winning — with an 8½-game lead in the AL East before Sunday night’s four-game series finale over Boone’s Yankees, who have seemed to hit a wall.
It’s been an amazing run for Cora the past two seasons. He was a bench coach for the Houston Astros, who won 101 regular-season games and then won the Divisional Series, the AL Championship Series, and the World Series. Heck, he got the Red Sox job, had the best spring training record (22-9) in baseball, started the regular season 17-2 and now sitting at 78-34.
Not much in the way of adversity.
“I’m prepared,” Cora said about potential adversity. “I do believe we’re very talented. It’s not that we’re looking forward to losing a few games in a row. But we know where we’re at and what our goals are. Baseball is great and I love it. But, honestly, when the game is over, I get in my car and the game is over. I go [home] and change diapers.”
Who knows when the A-word — adversity — will rear its ugly head. But, for now, Cora has been insulated with a magical touch concerning his strategic moves and in the clubhouse where his players follow and believe in him.
That sentiment started in the offseason when players seemed relieved they would be moving on from John Farrell, who had won a World Series and two straight divisional titles.
Of course, the modern reason for getting fired is when management accuses you of communication issues. It happened to Joe Girardi in New York and Farrell in Boston. The players were no longer inspired by the leader. There was no fun in the clubhouse. It even happened to Terry Francona in 2011 after his voice became muted by a chicken-and-beer incident and the great September collapse.
The shiny brand new Cora hasn’t worn off on anyone yet. After some tight games with the Yankees, who had won five of the first nine meetings, Cora’s Red Sox have come back with a vengeance, winning three straight before their “Sunday Night Baseball” matchup.
Both teams have been banged up, but the Red Sox have been able to weather the withering losses of Rafael Devers, Chris Sale, Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez, Ian Kinsler and Blake Swihart. The Yankees, meanwhile, have not fielded quite as potent a lineup with the loss of their top two sluggers —Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. And what Pete Rose told the New York Post’s Kevin Kernan last week in Cooperstown, N.Y., was true: the Yankees are a slugging lineup, but the Red Sox can hit for average and slug.
These two managers, obviously, have excellent talent and will succeed because of it. But both have displayed what Farrell and Girardi seemed to have been missing — the ability to communicate and connect with their players.
In big markets, the tune-out factor becomes evident after a while. Buck Showalter experienced it in Baltimore, and Mike Scioscia has likely felt it in Anaheim, where his contract is up and it looks like he could be moving on.
Boone was asked at his pregame press conference about the adversity of late and whether he believed in team meetings when things are bad.
“I say things in a group context all the time,” Boone said. “I don’t feel I need to call something if I sense that our guys weren’t preparing right, or we’re struggling in different situations, or I really think their focus isn’t good. I think they’re able to turn the page. I think they’re able to have things roll off them, so I have no issue.
“I think we’re prepared to go out there. I think each guy is in a good place even though we’re going through a tough little stretch right now.”
It’s not as though Boone is against meetings. As a player, he said he was in some good ones that made a difference and he was in some that left him uninspired.
“I talked to everyone as a group right before the All-Star break,” Boone admitted. “I will, at times, pop into to our daily hitters meeting for the first couple of minutes if I have something to say to our positional players. But, as far as calling a full-fledged team meeting, those have been few and far between since Opening Day.”
During these tough times, Boone believes the team gets its strength from the manager.
“I hope they look at me as emotionally stable and understand that I’m going to be as consistent and the same guy everyday,” said the Yankees manager. “I don’t want them to ever look at me and have anxiety come for me. It’s important for me to be consistent with who I am, how I treat them, how I talk to them.
“So that’s philosophically very important to me.”
While Cora is sitting in a position where it seems tough to figure how they could lose the division — unless they are haunted by the ghosts of 1978 or, even, 2003 — Boone is in the position where it’s hard to see how the Yankees could come back from this far to upend the Red Sox.
“I understand we’re in a tough spot,” he said. “I also understand our guys know they’re really good and capable of doing special things. We’re going to have to play a lights-out brand of baseball and I don’t put that past us. We just can’t start getting ahead of ourselves and start chasing results.
“The guys we have, and who they are, if we stay locked in to the plan and the process and keep winning every pitch, over time if we stay true to that, we’ll wrap up a lot of wins.”
Boone and Cora were interchangeable at one point this season. But now Cora has left his old ESPN buddy a bit behind.
After Sunday’s game there will still be six more games between the two teams, the final three at Fenway to end the season. If the Yankees win the wild card game, they’ll likely face Boston in the Divisional Series. And that’s where Boone could create some adversity for Cora.