This is a baseball world where you sometimes get the idea that it's general managers and all their analytics trying to manage these games, and even control them from upstairs. But sometimes it is still the real managers, down in the dugout and close to the action, who come away from the biggest games looking like stars. Alex Cora comes away from the first American League Division Series of his managerial career looking like that kind of star. And a total star at that.
Of course Cora did not get an out or get a hit against the Yankees. Of course all he could do was watch, dying along with all of Red Sox Nation in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday night, when it looked as if the Yankees were going to come back from down, 4-1, to square the series and take the whole thing back to Fenway. Even though Cora had done just about everything right for these two remarkable baseball nights at Yankee Stadium, he made you think back to the 1979 World Series, when Earl Weaver famously looked like a managing rock star, pushing all the right buttons as his Orioles got ahead of the Pirates three games to one.
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That year, Weaver actually had baseball writers suggesting he ought to be MVP if the Orioles won. Then his players stopped making pitches and getting hits, and the Pirates came back to win the World Series. So, yeah, Cora could only watch in the bottom of the ninth as closer Craig Kimbrel loaded the bases. Cora could only watch as Kimbrel looked as if he might have given up what would have been one of the famous home runs in Red Sox-Yankees history to Gary Sanchez, before the big fly Sanchez hit came down and into Andrew Benitendi's glove and became such the sacrifice fly that made it 4-3.
But in the end, Cora's team survived, and advanced, because he changed his lineup and helped change the energy and momentum of a 1-1 series on Monday night when he benched Ian Kinsler, Eduardo Nunez and Sandy Leon and replaced them with Rafael Devers, Brock Holt and Christian Vazquez in what became a 16-1 beatdown for the Red Sox -- the worst defeat for the Yankees in all of their grand postseason history.
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Here is the offense that trio provided Monday, starting with Holt, who became the first player in history to hit for the cycle in the postseason:
Eight hits, seven RBIs, six runs scored.
"I honestly don't know how you come back from [16-1]," Reggie Jackson was saying on the field before Game 4.
On Tuesday night, Cora went right back to Kinsler and Nunez and stayed with Vazquez against Carsten Sabathia. Kinsler ripped an RBI double over Brett Gardner's head in left and Nunez had an RBI single to left that made the game 3-0, and made the Stadium feel as if the Red Sox were three touchdowns ahead -- especially after what had happened the night before. And by the way? Kinsler had come within a few feet of hitting a grand slam home run off Sabathia in the top of the first.
When Aaron Boone -- who didn't manage like a star in this series, a year after replacing Joe Girardi, who had the Yankees within one victory of the World Series in 2017 -- did get Sabathia out of there and replaced him with Zach Britton, Vazquez hit the home run to right that eventually was the difference.
"Good teams go home at this time of year," Gardner would say later in the Yankee clubhouse. "Great teams move on."
Sometimes the teams moving on are helped mightily by great managing, which is exactly what the Red Sox got from Cora when the series moved from Fenway to New York. He did not stay too long with his own starter Rick Porcello, as well and efficiently as Porcello had pitched in Game 4. Cora, whose parents once lived 30 years in New York City, trusted a bullpen that nearly gave away Game 1, going first with Matt Barnes and then Ryan Brasier. Then he went with a starter in the eighth -- his best starter, his ace, Chris Sale -- the same as he had gone with Porcello when needing outs in the eighth inning of Game 1.
And Sale, who will still start Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros on Saturday night, was filthy, getting the side in order before Kimbrel turned the ninth into the opera. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski would talk after the game about how as much as Cora has embraced analytics, "He manages with his gut, too."
More than six hours before the Stadium would try to rise up the way the Yankees tried to rise up in the ninth and get themselves at least one more night of season, somebody asked Cora about Porcello's lack of success in the postseason, before he went out and pitched the way he pitched in Game 4.
Cora smiled and quietly said, "He's never pitched for me."
Cora trusted Porcello. He rested Sale with what he'd suggested before the game would be an "all-in" decision if he went to him. He trusted Devers and Holt and Vazquez in Game 3, and then he renewed his trust in Nunez and Kinsler in Game 4.
The 2018 Red Sox, with 111 wins in the books so far, are a team of stars; none bigger over the last two games than Cora.
"Some people are afraid of games like these," said Jackson, who never was.
Nor was the rookie manager of the Red Sox.