‘It’s been a pleasure to play for the guy’: With Alex Cora and his players, it’s a partnership
Brock Holt, who drove in five runs for the Red Sox on Monday night, received a call from manager Alex Cora on Tuesday morning to tell him he wouldn’t be in the lineup that night for Game 4 against the Yankees.
“What did I tell him? I told him I’d see him at the park,” Holt said about 12 hours later, champagne dripping off the ski goggles hanging around his neck after the Sox eliminated their rivals from the playoffs. “I think at this point we’ve all learned to trust what AC is thinking.”
That was why Rick Porcello, finally pitching well in a playoff start after a series of disappointments, shook Cora’s hand and took a seat on the bench to watch what happened next after being told he was finished after only five innings and 65 pitches in Tuesday night’s clinching win.
That Porcello could have pitched at least another inning wasn’t the point.
“I wasn’t really thinking like that,” Porcello said. “I was thinking about how many more outs we needed to close this thing out.”
A team once wrapped tight with tension now lets it ride, confident their rookie manager knows what’s best.
“He’s got a great feel for the game, he really does,” said Matt Barnes, the eighth-inning reliever who pitched in the sixth inning on Tuesday and didn’t ask why. “He’s done a phenomenal job all year long managing the bullpen, the starters, the defense, the offense. It’s been a pleasure to play for the guy.”
That freedom has the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. Game 1 is Saturday night against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park.
The Sox are four wins away from the World Series. Nobody wants to go home, not for another three weeks anyway. They’re having too much fun.
“Anybody outside of this clubhouse can say whatever they want. We know who we are and we know what we can do,” said Chris Sale, the starting pitcher who pitched the eighth inning Tuesday night. “Keep coming with it. We’ll be fine.”
The Red Sox already have cleared the significant hurdle of winning a postseason series after being eliminated in the first round in 2016 and ’17. Those failures cost manager John Farrell his job a year ago despite having finished in first place during the regular season.
The Sox wanted a new approach with what would largely be the same players. The 42-year-old Cora represented that in almost every way. He opened lines of communication long blocked and protected the players from themselves, mandating days off during the season with an eye on October.
Farrell, justifiably, managed for several seasons worried a three-game losing streak could cost him his job and games took on a grim, rigid sameness.
Cora took the long leash every new manager gets and went for a run.
“He’s been bold since Day 1, since the first day of spring training,” principal owner John Henry said from a dry corner of the celebration on Tuesday. “Even before spring training, he had ideas about what he wanted to do and what he wanted to change. He just did a tremendous job.”
When the playoffs started, Cora shifted. He used Porcello in relief for an inning to help secure Game 1. Then he flipped the lineup after a Game 2 loss, trusting his instincts — along with projections from the analytics staff — that Holt and Rafael Devers would give the team a lift.
They did, Holt in particular. But Cora put them back on the bench on Tuesday. When asked before the game if he was tempted to stay with what had worked, Cora smiled before answering.
“No, not at all,” he said. “We’ve been doing this all season . . . you have to maximize your roster, your position players.”
Ian Kinsler, who replaced Holt at second, doubled, scored a run, and drove one in in the 4-3 victory.
Eduardo Nunez, back at third base, went 2 for 4 with an RBI and saved the game defensively, racing in to field a slowly hit ball and fire to first for the final out.
Cora knew his lineup decisions would be blamed had the Yankees forced a deciding fifth game. But he did it anyway. Some managers can go years before they gain that level of confidence.
“That’s what was sort of missing the last couple of years. I didn’t think we were very aggressive in general,” said Henry, who also owns the Globe.
Now the Sox play the Astros in a matchup of the two best teams in the game.
The Sox led the majors with 108 victories but the Astros, who won 103, outscored their opponents by 34 more runs. The Sox scored the most runs, the Astros allowed the fewest. The Sox had the best record at home; the Astros were best on the road.
Cora was the bench coach last season when Houston won the World Series and a running theme of the series will be his relationship with Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
Cora always tried to bat that talk away, preferring to keep the focus on the players. But with this Red Sox team, it’s a partnership.
“This is what Alex told us we could do from the start,” left fielder Andrew Benintendi said. “How can you not believe him?”