Winning 108 games can earn a rookie manager the benefit of the doubt for a while, but the expiration date usually occurs at some point before Halloween. Consider Alex Cora on notice after Saturday night’s ALCS Game 1 loss to the Astros.
Cora was hard on himself afterward for getting ejected at the end of the fifth inning. Plate umpire James Hoye tossed him for arguing the strike zone. Still, the ill-fated move to use Brandon Workman in the ninth, though deployed by his proxy, bench coach Ron Roenicke, counts against Cora as a staff decision.
Plus, Cora was watching on TV in the clubhouse, not standing on the top step of the dugout, where he should have been.
At least he displayed a sense of humor when asked Sunday about pushing past those ugly events and turning the page to Game 2. “Well, I only worked half a game, so . . . ,” he said.
The magic touch Cora showed during Boston’s four-game win over the Yankees in the Division Series disappeared in the ALCS opener against the Astros. Much of that had to do with Chris Sale’s worrisome October fade, Justin Verlander’s usual dominance and the sloppiness of the Red Sox overall.
But Cora had his fingerprints all over Game 2 (under the supervision of the button-pushers upstairs, of course) by choosing to start playoff zero David Price and also shuffle the lineup, with Ian Kinsler replacing Brock Holt at second base, Rafael Devers taking over for Eduardo Nuñez at third and Christian Vazquez replacing Sandy Leon behind the plate. If the Red Sox could do better than the three singles they managed Saturday, then hey, at least that’s an improvement.
Cora’s performance going forward will be interesting because he clearly outmanaged fellow AL East rookie Aaron Boone when it mattered most. Boone flunked his first playoff tests and still was getting crushed days later for sticking with Luis Severino and CC Sabathia past the point everyone else felt was prudent.
During Friday’s exit interview with reporters, Boone admitted that in retrospect, pushing Severino into that disastrous fourth inning of Game 3 felt like a mistake. “I probably got a little greedy,” he said.
Hal Steinbrenner was a little more direct that afternoon in a conversation with Michael Kay on ESPN radio, calling it a “bad” move to stay with Severino.
“I think there were too many signs,” Steinbrenner told Kay. “I’m not a baseball guy, but I can tell when a guy’s getting hit hard, right?”
Ouch. Not what Boone would like to hear from his boss. But he flatly denied the suggestion that given his lack of experience on the job, the playoff games sped up on him.
October is different, and Cora was comfortable enough to acknowledge that Sunday.
“We work the whole season to put these guys in situations to be successful, and now it’s like you better be perfect, because the opposition is that good,” Cora said. “That’s a challenge, but I love it.
“Mentally, you have to be locked in throughout.”
Unlike Boone, who went from ESPN analyst to calling shots from the big chair in the Bronx, Cora had the benefit of sitting next to A.J. Hinch last October as the Astros’ bench coach in the World Series championship run. It’s not the same as being the guy in charge, but there is plenty to be gained by dugout osmosis.
Hinch, 44, piloted the Astros to the franchise’s first championship in his third year as manager, and at times, to those of us on the outside, made it look easy. He already has 28 postseason games on his resume, but he didn’t hatch into a polished playoff manager overnight.
“You get a little bit more calm and you feel a little bit more prepared,” Hinch said. “There’s a great comfort level with how you read and react to situations. You can’t just have one way to manage in the postseason. You’re got to manage your pieces and your players and your opportunities, and the game changes so fast. And I think any experience managing helps future managing.”
That's something to look forward to, for both Cora and Boone.