PHILADELPHIA — As Houston’s bench coach in 2017, Alex Cora spent September working with manager A.J. Hinch to keep the players sharp going into the playoffs.
He did the same as manager of the Red Sox last season, setting up the pitching staff to have the starters lined up and the relievers with just the right amount of rest for the Division Series.
The days leading up the playoffs always have a happy buzz about them. The players are busy arranging tickets for their families and friends, and the ballpark gets spruced up. It’s fun to debate who should get the final few spots on the roster, and the slightly colder weather is a reminder of the exciting games to come in October that everybody will be watching.
Now Cora is maneuvering through a much different world.
“It’s not cool to be honest with you,” he said Saturday before the Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1. “Sometimes I joke around with the guys. What do I do?”
Cora had just explained to a small group of reporters that Mookie Betts and Brock Holt were out of the starting lineup with minor issues that otherwise would have been pushed aside if the game meant something.
Betts sat out and probably will Sunday because of a sore left foot. Holt drew a walk in the ninth inning that helped lead to the winning run.
At 78-70, the Sox are likely a few days away from being officially eliminated. It’s not what anybody expected but they’re trying to handle it the right way.
“There’s a few things that I’m watching and looking ahead,” Cora said.
The goals are small ones. David Price, who has pitched once since Aug. 4 because of a sore wrist, could get in a game before the season ends. The same is true for Heath Hembree, out since Aug. 1 with a sore elbow.
There’s no proof that ending the season on a positive note actually means anything. But it’s worth a shot.
The Sox also plan to cut down how often relievers Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, Josh Taylor, Marcus Walden and Brandon Workman will pitch. All five carried a heavy load when the team was chasing a playoff spot in July and August.
Walden, as an example, has appeared in 65 games this season counting the minors. He had 28 appearances last season. Taylor made a jump from 48 to 68. That takes a toll.
“We’ll slow them down,” Cora said.
Catcher Christian Vazquez, who was 2 for 3 with a walk, has 124 more plate appearances than any previous season. He will likely get one game off in every series from now on. He’s a big part of the future.
“We come here to win every game. That’s our goal,” Cora said. “They’re part of it. But at the same time you have to be smart about it.”
There are players who can benefit from the situation. Marco Hernandez has played 49 games this season after missing two full years recovering from shoulder surgery. The Sox want to see more of him this month to better gauge where he fits on next season’s team.
With Holt entering free agency, Hernandez could become a more prominent player next season.
“I’m trying to show them what I can do,” said Hernandez, who was 0 for 5 from the leadoff spot Saturday. “These games are big for me. I’m excited. But it would be better if we could get in the playoffs.”
As Cora sets up the final days of the season with an eye on 2020, he’s also working without a boss. It’s been a week since Dave Dombrowski was fired and Cora is now checking in with Raquel Ferreira, Brian O’Halloran, Eddie Romero, and Zack Scott.
Romero is with the team this weekend.
The group has worked well together but Cora acknowledged it’s strange not to be talking with Dombrowski every day.
“I appreciate what they’re doing and I know they’re working hard to get this right. But at the same time, you’re with a guy for two years and just having those conversations, you miss that,” he said. “It is what it is, but it’s different.”
Cora never had to worry about all of this a year ago. But now he’s left reminding his players to go through the final two weeks of the season professionally.
“They know it,” Cora said. “They have their goals. They’re showing up every day and the meetings are going the same way and their preparation is going the same way.
“They’re honest with me as far as playing. Obviously now you have to be more careful. But they’re ready.”
The Phillies, who are still fighting for a playoff spot, had a big crowd at Citizens Bank Park. The defending World Series champions were a good draw even if all they’re doing at this point is crossing dates off the calendar.