Terry Francona set a high bar for all future Red Sox managers when he was still managing them at this time of year. In 2004, after the Red Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, Francona's team never lost another game that year, finishing with four straight wins against the Yankees and then four straight against the Cardinals in the World Series. It was a crazy eight-game winning streak to win it all.
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Three years later, all Francona's Sox did was finish with a seven-game winning streak. They were down 3-1 to the Indians in the ALCS, ran the table from there, then swept the Rockies in the World Series. Those winning streaks are in the record books forever, part of Red Sox history, baseball history, Boston sports history. So is the fact that Francona's World Series record with Boston is 8-0.
But here comes Alex Cora, and here come Cora's Red Sox, trying to make history of their own. The Red Sox won their AL Division Series against the Yankees in four games. Now they have taken out the Astros, defending champs of the baseball world, in five in the ALCS. The Red Sox team that started 17-2 in March and April is now 7-2 in October.
There is still a World Series to be played, against the Dodgers or the Brewers. But for now, form has held for the Sox in October: They were a lot better than everybody during the regular season in the AL and are still a lot better than everybody. Not only are they 7-2 so far in the postseason, they are 5-0 on the road. And, once again, you cannot talk about the Red Sox's journey to the team's fourth World Series in the past 15 years without talking about the contribution of a rookie manager who has been as much of a star in October as any of his players.
But this is the kind of manager we always thought Cora could be across a playing career that began in 1998 and didn't end until 2011 in Washington. We always knew he was one of the smartest guys in the room when he played four years with the Red Sox. We knew in New York when he played a couple of years with the Mets. Whether Cora had played in the game that day or not, we always stopped at his locker, if only for a couple of minutes, to get his analysis; to see the game through his eyes.
One day in the Mets' clubhouse at Citi Field, I told Cora that he sounded like a manager already.
Cora smiled and said, "I just try to pay attention. It's a good thing, paying attention."
All season long, Cora talked about a four-step process in Boston: Win the AL East, win a Division Series, win the pennant, win the World Series. So here the Red Sox are in a World Series for the first time since 2013, when they won with a team nowhere near as talented as this one.
In the interview room at Minute Maid Park on Thursday night, Cora was asked about what it means in Boston to have the Red Sox be back in the World Series, after all the Series history the organization has made in this century.
"It's special in every aspect," he said. "Not only as a manager, but as an individual. Just to manage this team. Everybody knows the history of the city, and history has positive sides and negative sides. And for me, as a minority, to be a manager in Boston hasn't been a challenge. … And to be able to led this team, it's amazing. It's a great group, very talented, very humble, very hungry."
They are like their manager, who feels like a kid starting out in baseball all over again, having just celebrated his 43rd birthday, doing his best work with the Red Sox when they need that kind of work the most.
Cora, who did not give up on Jackie Bradley Jr. when Bradley still wasn't hitting .200 in June, watched the center fielder knock in nine runs with three huge swings, including two home runs, against the Astros. It's why it should have surprised no one that Cora did not give up on David Price and Craig Kimbrel, who a week-and-a-half ago in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, bottom of the ninth, tried to pitch the Yankees into a Game 5.
On Wednesday night, Cora went to Kimbrel in the eighth inning, asked him to get six outs in what was an 8-5 game at the time, an epic game that would end 8-6. Somehow Kimbrel got those six outs as he gave Red Sox Nation another baseball nervous breakdown.
And Cora was ready to go with Price if Kimbrel couldn't close the deal. Then he watched as Price, even having warmed up in Game 4, went out and pitched the postseason game of his life in Game 5 -- six shutout innings, nine strikeouts.
Of course, you know about all the batting order changes Cora has made over the past couple of weeks, starting with when he went with Brock Holt, Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez in Game 3 against the Yankees, before he went back to Eduardo Nunez and Ian Kinsler for the big hits in Game 4. You saw how masterfully Cora used starting pitchers -- Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi -- in relief roles. But then Cora was sitting right next to Astros manager AJ Hinch -- and still paying attention -- in the October before this one when Hinch did the same thing with starters.
Alex Cora goes to the World Series now. A utility player has finally become a star. Everybody knows what we once knew in front of his locker.