A year ago, one person probably could have told you about what a strong playoff debut Alex Cora would have as a manager. In fact, one person more or less did. Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who was Cora’s boss at the time, said that his then-bench coach is “one of the brightest baseball intellects that I’ve been around.”
“He’s all about the competition and small advantages of the game,” Hinch said back then, during the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. “He challenges people. He challenges me. He's someone who's all about winning. And I think to watch our players respond to him, he's got a lot of respect in that clubhouse because of the work he puts in and the attention to detail that he brings.”
Now, Cora, the first-year manager of the Red Sox, will be competing against his former boss in this year’s ALCS. It is a heavyweight matchup between the teams with the two best records in the major leagues and it figures to be a chess match between the managers who have eliminated the Yankees in each of the past two seasons.
Cora was two steps ahead of the Yankees, and his former ESPN colleague and fellow managerial rookie Aaron Boone, at every turn during the Division Series, clinching it in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium Tuesday. The Red Sox manager said during the season and in the series how much he owes to the experience he gained in Houston with the 2017 world champions. He used some of Hinch’s strategies, such as bringing in the ace starter late in Game 4 — a move that Cora questioned when Hinch did it last October.
It will be intriguing to see the respective wheels turning in the series that begins at Fenway Park Saturday, featuring clubs that had a combined 211 regular-season victories (tying the ALCS record of the 2001 Mariners and Yankees).
“I don’t know too much about them, just that they have a good team,” Cora said of the Astros late Tuesday night, after his team had sprayed champagne around the clubhouse while speakers blared with “New York, New York.”
“What they did to the Indians, that was impressive. It seems like they’re playing their best baseball of the season at the right time. They can pitch. They’re playing good defense. They’re swinging the bat well. They’re a complete team.”
The Red Sox also pride themselves on their many facets, all of whom were used in the right measure at the proper times by their manager. Unlike Boone, who has been roundly criticized for some of his choices, Cora saw his decisions work out. He disrupted his starting rotation to salvage Game 1, using Rick Porcello as a surprise reliever. Cora made three lineup changes for Game 3 and two more for Game 4 and they all worked.
In Game 4, he used setup man Matt Barnes in the sixth inning to face the heart of the Yankees order. Cora went back to reliever Ryan Brasier, who had pitched poorly in Game 1, and was rewarded with a perfect inning. Then, he used Chris Sale, the ace and prospective Game 5 starter, in relief. It was similar to what Hinch had done with Justin Verlander in Game 4 of the 2017 Division Series against the Red Sox. Cora admitted Tuesday that he had questioned Hinch’s judgment at the time. He said so admiringly.
“I’ve been talking about them the whole season,” Cora said. “So now we go. Best of seven. They know me. I know them. It should be fun.”