NEW YORK — Three hundred fifty-nine days and six miles from Alex Cora’s promise to the Red Sox front office that he was prepared to manage aggressively, ace Chris Sale jogged to the mound to begin the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS.
In the dugout, utilityman Brock Holt had done almost a cartoon double-take an inning earlier, when he saw his team’s projected Game 5 starter warming up. Is that Chris Sale? he wondered. Then he grinned. That’s Chris Sale! Hell yeah!
In centerfield, Jackie Bradley Jr. turned to his right and quickly scanned the visitors’ bullpen. He turned to rightfielder Mookie Betts and called, “Long lefty’s coming in!” Betts nodded.
At first base, Steve Pearce paused to soak in the moment. I guess we’re all in, he thought.
Up in his box, GM Dave Dombrowski smiled. After the Red Sox won 4–3 to close out the series and advance to the ALCS, he reflected on Cora’s interview in a suite at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, in Midtown Manhattan. Dombrowski had come to town on an off-day during the Astros-Yankees ALCS to meet with Cora, Houston’s bench coach, and left so impressed that he called ownership. This is the guy, he told principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner. Now he gazed into the bullpen as Cora provided a signature moment of his tenure. This was exactly the kind of move Dombrowski had hired Cora to make.
“He’s not afraid,” a Champagne-drenched Dombrowski said after the game, pausing occasionally to clap a passing player on the shoulder. “He’s very smart with the analytics, but I also thought that he would manage with his gut at times, too. That combination is difficult to come by.”
All season, Cora reminded his players to be aggressive. “No bad takes,” he said. “If it’s in the zone and you can handle it, go for it.” The Astros’ scouting report on Boston last year had been simple: Pound the zone. They’ll take. A year after the Red Sox finished last in baseball with a 62.3% swing rate on strikes, they were second to the A’s among AL playoff teams with 67.8%.
As the playoffs approached, Cora’s message grew more granular: “Win every pitch.”
Unlike an umpire, a manager is not always at his best when no one notices him. Cora is in the middle of everything, frequently popping into the clubhouse and checking on each player each day. His fingerprints were all over this series, from the decision to burn projected Game 3 starter Rick Porcello in the eighth inning of Game 1 to the four different lineups the Red Sox trotted out in four games. During the regular season, Cora had protected his players, forcing them to take games off whether they wanted them or not, pulling starters early, staying away from relievers on consecutive days. Then October began. And his team could not get enough of Playoff Alex.
“If you’re a player, what do you want to play for?” Porcello said, watching stadium staff tear down the plastic sheeting protecting the lockers from the celebration. “You want to play for the minute that you’re in, and A.C. does that. … It does fire you up. It’s very motivating.”
A day earlier, Cora had trusted his gut and shaken up a lineup that had scored two runs in Game 2. He started Holt, third baseman Rafael Devers and catcher Christian Vázquez against Yankees phenom Luis Severino. (Holt, aware of his 1-for-15 track record against Severino, texted Cora: “Are you sure?”) Those players combined to go 2–for–4 against the righty and 8–for–17 on the night. Holt hit the first cycle in postseason history.
The aggression extends past personnel changes. In the third inning of Game 3, Betts went first-to-third on a single, then scored on a sacrifice fly. A frame later, Holt took off as Vázquez singled. He only ended up at second, but those are the plays Cora and his staff applaud.
That strategy will meet its match against the Astros, whom the Red Sox will face beginning on Friday night in Boston. Cora came up at the knee of Houston manager A.J. Hinch, who even out-aggressived Cora last ALDS when he brought in ace Justin Verlander in the fifth inning of Game 4, in a series the Astros led 2–1. Cora worried about Game 5. Hinch wanted to win Game 4. “O.K., you’re the manager,” Cora said.
On Tuesday, Cora decided to win Game 4. After he placed the call to the bullpen, he turned to the dugout. “Hey!” he shouted. “We’re all in!”
All this came in stark contrast to Aaron Boone, a fellow rookie skipper who seemed to think it was mid-July against the Orioles. Two days in a row he left a starter in a few batters too long, and both times it killed his team. On Tuesday, the Yankees’ win probability dipped from 50% to 46% in the third inning when starter CC Sabathia hit Andrew Benintendi with a pitch. It was 36% a batter later, when Pearce singled. A pair of productive outs brought it back to 41%, but it fell again to 30% when Ian Kinsler doubled in a run. Eduardo Núnez singled in another run, dropping it to 22%. Boone let Sabathia finish the inning. For the second night in a row Boone had to answer questions about hindsight in his postgame press conference while Cora celebrated.
Sale tossed a perfect eighth inning. It took him 13 pitches and four minutes. Closer Craig Kimbrel would make it interesting, allowing two runs and leaving two men on, but he got Gleyber Torres to bounce a knuckle curve to third baseman Núñez. The infielder fired off-line to first and caught Torres by a quarter-step on a beautiful stretch by Pearce, who is short for a first baseman at 5’10”. The celebration was somewhat dampened as Boston awaited a review of the play, but once the umpires conferred and declared Torres out, the Red Sox dogpiled. Cora burst up the stairs, acknowledged the fans behind the dugout, and paused. And then the man in the middle of everything stood 70 feet from the action and watched.