Red Sox manager Alex Cora the difference in World Series vs. Dodgers - Sports Illustrated

Boston Looks Unbeatable and It's in Large Part Thanks to Alex Cora

No matter how or why the Red Sox keep winning this postseason, and especially during their 2-0 World Series lead on the Dodgers, there's been one common denominator to it all: manager Alex Cora.
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BOSTON — Just to show off at this point, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora should send Ben Affleck or one of the several Wahlbergs out there to pinch hit. Maybe he could have someone from the grounds crew toss a couple of innings of middle relief, or dig up Tex Hughson and see if the old cadaver’s got one more hitter in him. At this point, Cora should go to Vegas and hit 18, every time. He should buy a ticket in every lottery in America. He should wander America’s beaches looking for Spanish gold. He should bet on blind greyhounds, three-legged thoroughbreds, and chickens that can play tic-tac-toe. He should go out every morning looking for wallets. If managers have a Zone, Cora’s set up light housekeeping there.

“He’s been awesome,” said Boston pitcher David Price, whose redemption this fall is the result of his having been a special project of Cora’s since before spring training began. “Through 162 games and through the playoffs, he hasn’t changed.

“When I see him in the dugout, he’s just walking around having conversations with the guys. Sometimes it’s about baseball and sometimes, it’s completely unrelated stuff. For him to separate the two with everybody in the clubhouse, that’s unique.”

There are a number of reasons why the Red Sox have won games in this World Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers have not, even though both of the two games in Boston this week were fairly close-run things. For example, the Red Sox offense has been utterly relentless. They have scored nine of their 12 runs in the Series with two outs, and 36 of their 68 runs this postseason. Their pitching has steadily improved. Price, whose career in Boston had not been an altogether happy one and whose postseason performance in general had not been impressive, has become unhittable. After standing the Houston Astros on their heads in the deciding game of the American League Division Series, Price’s control miraculously returned despite an erratically floating strike zone from home plate umpire Kerwin Danley. He befuddled the Dodgers through six innings in the chill of Wednesday night, giving up only three hits and two runs.

“Like he said the last time (against Houston),” Cora said, “There’s not going to be questions in Spring Training any more about David Price in October.”

“It’s the World Series,” Price said. “If you’re not into it, you probably should go home, so I was into it.”

Beyond Price, however, Cora finds himself suddenly gifted with a monstrous bullpen. Both Joe Kelly and Nathan Eovaldi regularly are hitting 100 mph as bridges to closer Craig Kimbrel, who still is occasionally something of a thrill-ride, but who has been perfect in the past two games. After Price left in the seventh inning, those three were perfect through the next three frames. The three of them averaged almost 99 mph on their fastballs, and none of them has given up a baserunner yet in the Series.

Both Kelly and Eovaldi are reclamation projects, former sure things who, for one reason or another, got sidetracked on their way to the Boston bullpen. Kelly is a bespectacled eccentric, brought over from St. Louis in a trade last year. In April, he endeared himself forever to the Boston fans by setting off a spirited hooley with Tyler Austin of the Yankees. Austin had slid into Brock one of the Red Sox in a manner Kelly thought untoward, so Kelly plunked him and then gestured for Austin to come discuss matters on the mound. The fight was so bad—which is to say, so good—that Kelly was suspended for six games. He spent them in the bleachers at Fenway. He went to a Bruins game and was roundly applauded when a video of his fight played on the big screen. (Hockey people, man.) “Joe Kelly Fight Club” T-shirts became briefly the rage.

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As for Eovaldi, he had played for three teams before he was 26. He never quite could get his speed together with his control and, in 2016, he underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time and was released by the Yankees. (Eovaldi was briefly famous when he had his first Tommy John operation as a 17-year-old.) The procedure revived his career and, after a brief stop in Tampa Bay, he got flipped to the Red Sox in July. He spent most of the season as a starter; in his first postseason start, he struck out 17 Yankees in the ALDS. Now, Cora had him coming in for the eighth inning Wednesday night, and there are better than even odds that he’ll start one of the three games in Los Angeles.

But it has been Boston’s rookie manager who has been the revelation of the season. Over the first two games of the World Series, Cora—who, to be honest, is gifted with a talented roster that affords him all manner of in-game shenanigans—did not make a single move that didn’t work, did not push a single button that didn’t produce a symphony, and was not faced with a question he couldn’t answer. On Tuesday night, with Boston leading by a run in the seventh inning, Cora sent Eduardo Nuñez up the bat for his gifted rookie third-baseman Rafael Devers with two men on and two outs, and Nuñez dropped Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood’s second pitch up and barely over the wall in leftfield for an 8-4 Red Sox lead.

“In that inning,” Cora explained, “I think we had a few matchups that we felt comfortable with. [Andrew] Benitendi gets on, and we had [Mitch] Moreland against [Pedro] Baez, and then we had Nunie against Wood.

“We talked about it today. When he came in, he was probably a little disappointed that he didn’t start because he’s been starting against every lefty. Having him on the bench, it was going to pay off. You’ve got to keep a righty. Keeping him in the dugout and out of the lineup was probably going to give us a chance to win the game.”

“He told me, ‘Lefthanded hitter going against [Clayton] Kershaw,’ I’m going to be prepared,” Nuñez said. “Late in the game, seventh or eighth inning, late in the game, if they bring in a lefty for Devers. That was the plan and we did it.”

One day, someone will tell his grandchildren about the night Eduardo Nuñez beat the Dodgers in a World Series, and about how Joe Kelly and Nathan Eovaldi threw the ball so fast through the autumn chill that people were afraid to swing, lest they hit the ball less than solidly and end up with a handful of bees. Baseball is addicted to lore, after all. It can’t help itself.

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Of course, given the fact that these are two ancient franchises that haven’t contested a World Series since 1916, baseball romanticism and gooey nostalgia was at high tide. (In fact, the Red Sox and the Dodgers wouldn’t play a game that counted of any kind again until 2002.) Back then, the Series had to be moved from four-year old Fenway Park to Braves Field, which had more seats in which the rambunctious Boston fans, including Mayor John Fitzgerald, JFK’s grandfather, could run amok. (Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, the leader of the Royal Rooters, the rowdy group that included Fitzgerald, moved his Third Base Saloon for the last time in 1916.) Boston’s Babe Ruth pitched 14 shutout innings to win Game 2. Casey Stengel hit .364 for the series. However, manager Wilbert Robinson sat Stengel out against Ruth because Stengel couldn’t hit lefties. The Red Sox won in five games and used only five pitchers the entire series.

In the years after that Series, of course, both franchises were thickly afflicted with novelists and slumming poets—the Dodgers for having abandoned Brooklyn in 1958 and the Red Sox for putting up eight decades of futility prior to finally winning the World Series again in 2004. I would hazard a guess that, outside of Notre Dame football and (perhaps) the British Open golf tournament, more treacly swill has been written about these two franchises than has been produced about any subject touching on sports anywhere.

None of which touches either of the teams in this year’s World Series, each of which are the very models of a modern MLB team. They are sleek and shiny representatives of an important part of the sports-entertainment complex. They have as little to do with the days of straw hats and stogies as a Cabriolet has with an Model A Ford. Their histories are sanded down and edgeless, so as to be easier to commodify. Their stories are now written in simple declarative sentences; indeed, much of their stories are now written in 240 characters on somebody’s telephone. Thus are we spared the prose that greeted the Red Sox and the Dodgers the last time they met, which was lovingly curated by the current staff of The New York Times. This passage I find particularly wonderful. It seems to have something to do with the Babe’s masterpiece in Game Two.

“When the rays were ruddy to the onlookers boasting allegiance to the sacred codfish, they were tinged with indigo for partisans of the rubber-plant jungle just forninst the eastern end of the Brooklyn Bridge.”

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Now that, sports fans, is the kind of content that deserves to be produced across many platforms. I think it means Dodgers fans weren’t happy with being down 2-0, but there may be other interpretations. I looked up “forninst,” believing it to be a typo, but it actually means “near to.” This is further evidence supporting my theory that baseball fans of that time, who depended on the accounts of the game in their newspapers, the first live radio broadcast still being five years off, were some very confused people.

So, simply put, and not attempting to tinge the prose with indigo, the Red Sox right now are better in almost every way than the Dodgers are. Everything about them seems to be peaking, from their young and talented everyday lineup, to David Price, to their afterburners in the bullpen, to their manager’s astonishing ability to make the right move at the right time, to pull a rabbit out of your hat. Eduardo Nuñez summed up the two nights in Fenway better than most when he was describing how he felt rounding the bases after his home run broke open the first game of this World Series.

“I think that was the best feeling for a player, to see all the fans,” he said. “They paid tickets to watch us play and to be crazy.” The sacred codfish couldn’t have said it better.