Red Sox players happy to credit Alex Cora for team’s success
The Red Sox used five lineups during the American League Championship Series. Only the top four spots — Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, J.D. Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts — stayed the same.
Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi were used as starters and in relief.
Matt Barnes, who pitched primarily in the eighth inning during the regular season, came into games in the fifth and sixth innings and twice in the seventh.
Craig Kimbrel faced 11 batters in a game for the first time in his career. Sandy Leon, the team’s slowest runner, pinch-ran twice.
When manager Alex Cora told his players to be ready for anything in the postseason, he meant it.
That the Red Sox sliced through the pressure and won seven of their nine playoffs games — outscoring the Yankees and Astros by 21 runs along the way — is a testament to the depth of talent on the roster, but also to the faith those players have in their manager.
As the Sox prepare to open the World Series on Tuesday night at Fenway Park, the organization is being richly rewarded for having made the right choice a year ago.
“Alex gets a feel of the clubhouse and always has an idea of what’s going on, how guys are feeling,” Martinez said. “Guys want to play for him. That’s led to all this success.”
That feeling, wanting to play for the manager, is what the Red Sox were seeking when they fired John Farrell after first-place finishes in 2016 and ’17. Even though Farrell won the World Series with an older team in 2013, management felt he grew too distant from the young talent that gradually flipped the roster starting a year later.
The 43-year-old Cora, who was hired a year ago Sunday, is not a players’ manager in the traditional sense of the term. He demands accountability for mistakes and expects the players to use the detailed scouting information provided them to prepare for games.
Christian Vazquez, who was signed to an extension in March, was benched in June for underperformance. Cora also was behind the surprise move to release Hanley Ramirez in May. That further opened the door for players such as Betts and Bogaerts to exert leadership.
So while Cora is comfortable pulling up a chair in the clubhouse or getting to know the players on a personal level, he also knows where the line is.
After first-round exits in 2016 and ’17, the players were eager for something new and the fit worked from the start of spring training.
“The biggest thing is nobody has an ego or a chip on their shoulder,” Porcello said. “We’ll all take the ball when called upon and play different roles to help us win. Whatever it takes. That’s kind of what we’ve doing all season.”
Barnes was left off the playoff roster in 2017, worn down after being overworked all season. He has appeared in seven of the nine postseason games this fall and allowed one run over 6⅓ innings.
“A.C.’s the best, he really is,” Barnes said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing and puts us in a position to succeed. It’s all working out great. He’s done the right thing all year long, he really has. It’s an honor to play for the guy and hopefully we can get four more wins.
“We started the season with one goal, winning a championship. We have a chance.”
That Kimbrel was able to close out Game 5 in Houston on Thursday was a product of Cora knowing when to trust one of his players, even if others had to wonder if it made sense.
Kimbrel had been hit hard in four previous game in the postseason, giving up five runs on six hits, five walks, and two hit batters. The closer needed 35 pitches for a two-inning save on Wednesday, narrowly avoiding disaster when Benintendi made a diving catch with the bases loaded to end the game.
“I went to him after the game [Wednesday] night and said thank you for sticking with me,” Kimbrel said. “That gave me a lot of confidence.”
Cora went right back to Kimbrel the next night with the pennant on the line and he struck out two of the four batters he faced before Benintendi tracked down a deep fly ball to end that game.
It was more than faith. Cora knew that Kimbrel had adjusted his delivery to stop tipping his slider to the hitters. The changes were helped along by a suggestion from former Sox reliever Eric Gagne, who played with Cora in 2007.
Once Cora saw the problem had been worked through, he went right back to Kimbrel.
“That meant a lot to me, it really did,” Kimbrel said.
Cora stayed on the outskirts of the clubhouse celebration after the Astros were eliminated, content to watch the players before going to look for his family.
He enjoyed watching all the reactions.
“We play in a city that sometimes winning is a relief, and we’re not doing that,” Cora said. “We really are enjoying the ride, the journey.”