LOS ANGELES – The Red Sox are where they are in no small part because of the remarkable trick pulled by Alex Cora through the first 11 games of the postseason, because of his intuitive feel for game situations and how his roster can affect them, for his almost perfect decision-making through the four game Division Series against the Yankees, the five-game Championship Series against the Astros, and the first two games of the World Series against the Dodgers.
With one bet after another, Cora seemingly mastered the probabilities of the moment in a way that identified the most direct paths to victory.
Yet when Max Muncy smashed Nathan Eovaldi’s 97th pitch of the night over the fence in left-center at Dodger Stadium at 12:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. ET) to give Los Angeles a 3-2, 18-inning, walkoff victory, Cora lost his tallest stack of chips of the postseason. In the wake of a game bookended by two historically brilliant efforts – one of the most dominant starts in World Series history by Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler, and one of the most remarkable relief efforts ever by Eovaldi – it was impossible not to wonder whether Cora lost a bet that he shouldn’t have made in the first place.
Cora has been fearless this postseason, taking a pedal-down approach that has suited the relentless demeanor of his own team. He has been a manager who has gone for the knockout punch and most often delivered it, with his players loving the aggressiveness of his maneuvers.
“We’re all in. They know it. They understand. They understand how we are managing the game, how we’re attacking the opposition,” Cora said prior to Game 3 of the World Series. “And if they’re healthy, they’re willing to take the risk.”
Yet there had been a situational discipline to what Cora had done. His decision to tab starters for “rover” bullpen roles had been when he’d seen an opportunity to close out a win – not to chase one, a point made by pitching coach Dana LeVangie.
The Red Sox, LeVangie said on multiple occasions, had limited the use of starters in bullpen roles to those moments when they could close out a win. That’s exactly what transpired in Rick Porcello’s two relief appearances (one in the ALDS, one in the ALCS), Chris Sale’s ALDS appearance, and Eovaldi’s three appearances out of the bullpen.
Cora even speculated prior to Game 3 about the conditions under which he might use Eovaldi as a reliever. He identified what seemed like a narrow scenario for using the righthander with electrifying stuff out of the bullpen – one that would mirror the prior use of his starters to close out a win.
“If [Eovaldi] pitches today, it’s very similar to [Sale’s relief appearance] in New York in Game 4 that we were up by three, I think, going into the 8th and we feel that he can pitch that inning, keep it that way and then we go to the next guy and close it,” Cora conjectured. “It’s still baseball. You never know, a walk, a hit, and a tie game, but it’s a chance we’re taking.”
That wasn’t the chance that Cora took. On Friday night, the Red Sox manager made a bet with Eovaldi not to secure a win, but instead to prolong a game. Cora talked at times during the season about the difference between chasing a win (something Terry Francona had cautioned him not to do in the regular season) and working to secure one. In perhaps the only game of a seven-game set in which chasing a win did not make sense – given that the Red Sox were in a strong position moving forward in the series, and that the workload management of three games in three days under National League rules would stress the pitching staff as at no other time – Cora went chasing.
He was using his most dominant postseason pitcher to contribute in a tie contest, making progressively larger investments on a 50-50 proposition for a win, rather than the 80-20 bets he’d been making when employing starters with leads (and often multi-run leads) in his hand. He did so at the risk of muddying the team’s pitching picture for the duration of its time in Los Angeles.
By summoning his scheduled Game 4 starter in a tie game, Cora wasn’t doubling down on an 11. Instead, dealt a meager hand by an offense that couldn’t score, the Red Sox manager made the decision to draw card after card – a 2, a 3, a 3, an ace, hit me again … All the while, he progressively raised his bet – cash … watch … car key … .
He nearly won it. The Red Sox took a 2-1 lead in the 13th inning when Eduardo Nunez, evidently planning to dress as a crash-test dummy for Halloween, pressured the Dodgers with a bunt single that led to a run-scoring error by pitcher Scott Alexander, giving Eovaldi the chance to close out the game.
Eovaldi pitched well enough to do so, but Ian Kinsler’s error in the bottom of the 13th forced Cora to keep rolling with the bet. Finally, after a full game’s worth of extra innings, a jack was flipped. Bust.
The consequences are significant. Even with the loss, the Red Sox are far from broke – they remain up, 2-1, in the World Series race to four wins – but their station seems far less secure than it could have been.
The Red Sox went to bed after Game 3 with no scheduled Game 4 starter. They can choose from one of the two pitchers who didn’t enter the game — Chris Sale, who would be pitching on three days’ rest in a month where he already has appeared to be running on fumes; or Drew Pomeranz, who last started a game on Aug. 7 — or Eduardo Rodriguez, whose job description had been narrowed to that of one-batter lefty specialist.
“How do you spell that, ‘TBA? TBA’,” Cora joked in the early-morning hours. “There are a few guys that are lining up in my office to start the game tomorrow. We’ll decide what we’ll do and we’ll be fine. … Somebody will start – most likely a lefty.”
It won’t be a righty. It won’t be Eovaldi. A memorable Game 3 loss in a contest that featured enough innings for two full games felt in some ways like two full losses, leaving behind the echo of a question of whether, for once, Cora’s all-in instincts had steered him to make the wrong choice.