For teams that have already clinched a playoff berth, the final week of the regular season provides time for roster issues to be hashed out, slumps to be quashed, and rotations to be set in order.
One such issue Red Sox manager Alex Cora must maneuver before Boston opens its postseason journey at Fenway Park on Oct. 5 is establishing consistency at second base.
Boston’s hierarchy at the position has become a bit hazy in the past few weeks. Ian Kinsler is enduring his first extended rough patch with the Red Sox and Eduardo Nunez is sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Brock Holt started Monday and went 1 for 3 with a double in the 6-2 win over the Orioles. He has plugged the gap admirably, but he’s a utilityman, not the primary postseason option.
Veteran Brandon Phillips is in the dugout, too.
Kinsler hasn’t appeared the same since returning from the disabled list with a left hamstring strain Aug. 17. He’s hitting just .185 in September with a putrid .206 on-base percentage.
Cora believes it’s a submissive mind-set that has sapped the power from Kinsler’s bat.
“One thing’s for sure: I would love for him to be a little more aggressive early in counts,” said Cora. “He’s been a leadoff guy and probably he feels that he should work the count, but he can catch up with the fastball. His swing is still there, but with two strikes it’s not that easy. I’ll talk to him a little bit about it.”
Boston acquired Kinsler at the trade deadline, the 36-year old four-time All-Star fresh off back-to-back months in which he recorded double-digit RBI totals. He belted eight home runs in June alone.
Kinsler hasn’t driven the ball as effectively in Boston. He went just 1 for 19 on the Red Sox’ recent road trip.
Right fielder Mookie Betts made sure Kinsler was apprised of the team psyche when the former leadoff hitter expressed a desire to bunt amid his rough patch.
“He mentioned something about bunting a few weeks ago,” recalled Cora. “He tried to bunt and Mookie told him, ‘We don’t do that here.’ I do feel like he’s getting some pitches he can drive early in the count, but he’s not attacking.”
Kinsler was given a day off Monday with Orioles righthander Dylan Bundy starting.
Nunez hasn’t played since Wednesday while nursing his hamstring. Cora reported Nunez felt good running Sunday and would shoot for Wednesday or Friday as a return date.
In the interim, Cora remains comfortable with Holt’s production.
“The way that Brock is swinging the bat, he’s somebody we count on,” said Cora.
Every pitcher approaches the lead up to the postseason differently. Last year as a bench coach in Houston, Cora observed his two aces occupy divergent paths in their preparation process.
Justin Verlander expressed a desire to fire 120 pitches in his final playoff tuneup. Dallas Keuchel was indifferent, settling for a simulated game, which he threw in Boston. The Astros ended up defeating the Red Sox in the ALDS.
Cora will delegate each pitcher’s workload on a case-by-case basis this week. David Price and Chris Sale will close out the Baltimore series Tuesday and Wednesday. Rick Porcello will pitch Friday against New York. The weekend remains to be determined.
“We’ve done a good job the last few weeks slowing them down, keeping them at five innings or X amount of pitches,” said Cora. “Whatever they feel they need in their last start, [they’ll get].”
Praise for LeVangie
Boston’s pitching staff owns the fifth-best ERA in baseball. Some of that success can be accredited to pitching coach Dana LeVangie, upon whom Cora mounted heaps of praise.
“He’s been great,” said Cora. “He’s been in the organization for a long, long time in different roles and one thing is for sure: he connects with players. His understanding of the game is way up there.
“On a nightly basis, I feel it really doesn’t matter who’s on the mound — we’re going to attack guys the right way and they’re going to give us a chance to win ballgames.”
Bogaerts in play
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was back in the lineup after exiting early Sunday evening with discomfort in his left shoulder. Bogaerts went 2 for 4, and drove in his career-best 96th run of the season. After Sunday’s game, Bogaerts acknowledged how one-sided the conversation between he and Cora had been when the skipper pulled him from action. Said Cora, “I’m good with him, but sometimes I’ll be tough.” . . . Boston appeared weary-eyed prior to Monday’s game after suffering through a late night of travel. Cora said he didn’t use pinch-hitters in the Red Sox’ 4-3 loss to Cleveland in 11 innings on Sunday night, hoping to expedite the team’s flight plans . . . Price is 5-1 with a 2.00 ERA in 10 starts since the All-Star break and owns a 2.67 career ERA against Baltimore.
Owen Pence can be reached at email@example.com.