As Red Sox at last get ‘better,’ Alex Cora keeps showing his worth

He came to Boston without significant managerial experience, but Cora's feel for the job is easy to see.

Alex Cora's sophomore season as Red Sox manager hasn't matched Year One, but he's clearly got the trust of his players, which will only help as they fight to erase that slow start.
Alex Cora's sophomore season as Red Sox manager hasn't matched Year One, but he's clearly got the trust of his players, which will only help as they fight to erase that slow start. –jamie squire/Getty

COMMENTARY

“We need to get better” doesn’t quite have the ring of “our objective is to win tomorrow,” but I’m increasingly getting that Terry Francona vibe from Alex Cora. In result, yes, but just as much in tenor, tone, and temperature.

They aren’t as big a ‘t’ as talent, obviously, but we just watched a Celtics team that lacked them and look how that ended up.

Before the Red Sox played their one series of the season in Minnesota, which was just a game off the torrid pace the 2018 Red Sox set through 70 games, Cora made clear he wasn’t concerned that the first dozen weeks of this season showed his team unable to consistently beat baseball’s best.

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“Obviously we haven’t executed. We get it. I understand that part. But I don’t think we’re going to go 5 for 45 with men in scoring position every time against elite competition,” he said.  “I’m not saying it’s a fluke. We need to get better. But that’s the way I see it.

“That’s why I stay positive. … I know we can be a lot better offensively. I know that. It’s just a matter of start doing it.”

They won Monday on just two runs, a formula to win only about one in five games this season, then went 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position on Tuesday, a 17-inning loss that Boston squandered a heaping handful of ways. Neither proved Cora’s point, nor changed the reigning narrative around the defending champs.

“To lose a game like that would take way more out of you than winning a game propels you,” catcher Mitch Garver, behind the plate for all 228 Twins pitches and 345 minutes, told reporters in the wee hours of Wednesday. “That would be so hard to go that far and use all the pitchers that you did, grind out at bats and then lose.”

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Apparently not, because Cora’s team responded with a breakthrough: A 9-4 victory without a homer, on the strength of 7-for-14 with RISP, 12 overall hits and another 10 walks. It delivered the series win against a better-than-.500 team the Red Sox have been chasing for a month and a half, and — in a year sorely lacking the success of 2018 despite essentially the same personnel — was the same number of runs and the same result the Sox scored the night after losing that 18-inning epic in the World Series.

A statement win, if you’re into such things. A chance for Cora to crow a little. Which he, well, didn’t much.

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“It was a good win, very quiet. Just do the right thing, play the game the right way, and all of a sudden, we look up and we had the lead,” he said. “They have a good team, but we do, too. We’re playing a lot better lately.”

It’s a drum beat. It’s a simple message. And it’s working.

To a degree, anyway. The Red Sox have won 7 of 8, but that still just answers losing 5 of 6 in the way winning four in a row at the beginning of June answered losing four in a row (including two to the Yankees) at the end of May. In the last 23 days, they’ve shaved zero games off the 6.5 they’re behind the Yankees, gone from 4.5 to 3.5 behind the Rays (whom New York just swept with prejudice in the Bronx), and are still only just a playoff team if the season ended today.

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They may have just lost hard-hitting Rafael Devers to a hamstring problem. They definitely just lost Hector Velazquez again to a balky back, which if nothing else keeps the Travis Lakins/Josh Smith/Josh Taylor transaction machine pinballing in a bullpen whose issues feel more pointed by the week. Two late leads surrendered in the Texas series, another Sunday in Baltimore, two more on Tuesday … 14 blown saves, two off the MLB bottom, may not tell the story exactly right, but it’s not some grand miscarriage of justice either.

About which Cora, if pointedly asked, would likely stress the simple. Keep the faith. Believe in the process and the talent on a squad whose second most significant new addition is Colten Brewer. But also, be realistic.

“We need to get better,” he said about the bullpen in April.

“We need to get better, and he knows it,” he said about Eduardo Rodriguez in March; the same Rodriguez who finished strong Wednesday in a spot the Red Sox desperately needed him to.

“I’ve been saying the whole time we need to get better,” he said about the baserunning in May.

“Offensively, although people don’t see it that way, that’s the part that we need to get better,” he said at the beginning of June.

Two Novembers ago, Cora rolled back into Boston as the people’s pick for the Red Sox corner office at a time when “leadership,” “communication,” and “respect” felt lacking between players and boss. John Farrell clearly had his failings at the end of five years, and one of the indisputable ones was as the filter to the franchise that makes the stuff going good feel great and the stuff going bad seem insignificant.

Farrell did the opposite, and had a habit — especially toward the end — for using lots of words to say little, then contradicting them all anyway. If we saw it on the outside, you can imagine it probably ran inside the same.

“We’re going to connect with players, be genuine and be accessible, and that’s the most important thing,” Cora declared at his introductory press conference at Fenway. “Having a good relationship with players is not bad, and doing that, you’re going to get the best out of them.

“You embrace them, you tell them how good they are, and when you have to twist their arm and tell them, ‘That’s not good enough,’ they’re gonna respond to you.”

Maybe three seasons from now, the view’s not as rosy. (Francona and Farrell, after all, went from first-year Series champs to the firing line.) In this moment, however, and with this club, Cora has shown himself an excellent steward. The guy who drew some sideways glances when he embraced the frenetic obsession with the day-to-day of Boston baseball fandom — “I come from a country where we live baseball 24-7. This is gonna be fun.” — has struck the right tone as this 2019 team sputtered, and continues to while it attempts to dig itself from its early hole.

These next two weeks are a prime time for that, at least relatively. Toronto and the White Sox at home, followed by two spectacle-but-meaningful games with the Yankees in London, followed by Toronto and Detroit on the road leading to the All-Star break.

Fourteen pretty winnable games, coming at a point where the Red Sox are playing as well as they have all year and are closing on a needed break from a pretty difficult early road.

“Sometimes I go back to 2008, when we went through the whole thing, with Japan, and the traveling and all that stuff,” Cora said in Minnesota. “Tito [Terry Francona] called a meeting after April, I think, or two months into the season, and we were playing like .500 baseball. And he was like, ‘Hey, good job, guys.’ We were like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, that was a tough stretch.’

“We’ve got an off-day [Thursday]. Obviously we’ve got the off days before London. And after London, that’s going to be another tough stretch. I think as far as energy and the way we played the last five or six days, we’re in a good place.”

Without question, Cora’s been huge in putting them there. And if they rip off the sort of run they again feel capable of the next few weeks, he’ll deserve plenty of credit for it.