Just when everyone wants to dismiss the importance of a manager in baseball — or at the very least diminish its significance — along comes the Alex Cora Redemption Tour to show that maybe this isn’t only about numbers after all.
Cora isn’t the primary reason the Red Sox entered Saturday night with a 17-10 record that no one saw coming and that Boston, through Friday’s games, was the lone team above .500 in the AL East. But for all the abuse chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom — the Rays import — endured in putting this roster together through the budget-conscious mindset of ownership and last year’s trade of Mookie Betts, the Red Sox desperately needed someone out front to make everything work at field level.
Doing that at Fenway can be an incredibly difficult job in the best of times. But the Red Sox trusted Cora so implicitly that they couldn’t wait to bring him back after his one-year Astros-cheating-scandal exile, and the reward surely has exceeded their expectations.
Returning under that lingering Houston cloud didn’t figure to be easy, even after the baseball world, like everyone else on the planet, remained preoccupied by a pandemic. But Cora has handled that re-entry seamlessly, not only as the dugout voice during games but with his deft media touch, which has never been more important in these days when limited Zoom access puts even more weight on a manager’s words.
While good chemistry typically is the byproduct of winning, it helps to have a capable, charismatic manager to light the spark — or even resuscitate a team when things aren’t so hot. Just a few weeks later, few people even remember that the Red Sox were swept at Fenway by the woeful Orioles in the season’s first series. That’s because Boston responded by winning its next nine games, a streak that not only righted the ship but built the momentum the Sox currently are sailing on.
Take this past week at Citi Field. The Red Sox, the best offensive team in the American League, swept a two-game series against the Mets despite scoring only three runs. They even beat the otherworldly Jacob deGrom, who struck out nine and allowed only three hits in six innings but was forced out after throwing 93 pitches.
Sure, the Mets can’t hit, so they made Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards — Tuesday night’s winner — look like Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. But more impressive is the Red Sox’s ability to find a way to win regardless of the circumstances, and that adjustment is what separates the merely talented clubs from serious October contenders.
"We have our own inside joke about power rankings. We treat it like college baseball," Cora said to NESN this past week. "I told Xander [Bogaerts] before the game that if we beat [deGrom], we might be No. 1 in the nation in the upcoming days. It’s just silly stuff, but they know where they’re at, they know what they’re doing."
Through Friday, the Red Sox led the AL in OPS (.759), were second in runs scored (129) and were third in batting average with RISP (.240). They also were tied for fifth with 31 homers. Given their lineup and the emergence of Alex Verdugo — the key return from the Betts trade — those numbers aren’t surprising. The fact that Boston was third in the AL with a team ERA of 3.55 ERA is the shocking part.
Unlike a certain Flushing team we know, however, the Red Sox aren’t wasting the quality pitching performances they do get. And that doesn’t happen by accident.
Boston barely scored in beating the Mets twice, but they had facing deGrom as an excuse. Plus, you could see the noticeable difference in the at-bats between the two clubs. The Red Sox had a plan in driving up deGrom’s pitch count; the Mets’ hitters seemed to grow more panicked with each pitch. It was as if they had never seen a curveball before.
Perhaps the best example of the Red Sox’s relentless, intelligent attack on offense came during the morning Patriots Day game on April 19 at Fenway. Facing another AL power in the White Sox and ace Lucas Giolito, they scored six runs in the first inning on a leadoff homer by Kike Hernandez followed by six singles and a groundout. One of those singles was a bunt by catcher Christian Vazquez, who noticed the third baseman playing back and took a shot.
Over and over, the Red Sox simply took what Giolito gave them, punching hits over the infield or through holes, and that clever approach seemed like a reflection of their manager.
Cora was too smart for his own good in helping to devise the trash can-banging system with the Astros, and he wound up paying the price. But he is a very sharp baseball mind, and winning that 2018 World Series in his rookie year at the helm was not just a lucky punch.
Perhaps more impressive is Cora getting off the mat from that year-long suspension to help revive the Red Sox this season, an early success story that explains why Boston didn’t hesitate to welcome him back.
Madison Bumgarner’s hat from his April 25 no-hitter against Atlanta was sent to Cooperstown, but the achievement itself won’t be recognized in the record books because MLB refuses to acknowledge that holding an opponent hitless for seven innings — even though doubleheaders these days consist of seven-inning games — is an actual no-hitter.
By doing so, MLB wants it both ways. After keeping last year’s rule to allow for seven-inning doubleheaders — a change made to facilitate squeezing in COVID-related makeup games on a short schedule — the league obviously is fine with making them count just as much as the official nine-inning variety when determining the standings.
But if they carry just as much weight in that regard, it’s unfair to penalize pitchers for the decision to have that rule. After all, they still get credit for shutouts and complete games despite throwing only seven innings. Either commit to the legitimacy of a seven-inning game or get rid of them altogether. It’s just a bad look for baseball when things are determined on an arbitrary basis for the sake of convenience.
"I think it’s a no-hitter," Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman told reporters afterward. "We had a game today, we didn’t get any hits and he pitched the whole thing."