BOSTON -- In their upset of the Rays in the American League Division Series, the Red Sox went with a pedal-to-the-metal style of pitching in which manager Alex Cora asked a lot of his pitching staff.
The starters knew that, just about every day, it was "spikes on," meaning there was a good chance they could be used in relief.
The high-leverage relievers knew they could be called on for anything from one inning to the five that Tanner Houck pitched in Game 2, when he changed the momentum of the series. And if a pitcher has had a couple of days of rest after throwing 73 pitches in his previous outing, don’t be surprised if Cora looks for another 67 the next game, as he did with Nick Pivetta in an even bigger momentum-turner in Game 3.
That style worked beautifully for Cora in the more forgiving best-of-five format that is used in the Division Series round.
Can it also work in the AL Championship Series, which is a best-of-seven, and will start in Houston on Friday night?
We are about to find out. Because Cora indicated he will stick with his seize-the-day mentality in the upcoming days, just as he did throughout the 2018 postseason.
“When we announce the starters for Games 1 and 2, the rest of them will be in the bullpen,” said Cora. “We've done it before that way. And that’s the way we're going to do it. These two games in Houston, they're very important. We know what we want to do. And we will have our starters be part of the bullpen in Games 1 and 2, and then we'll decide what we do [for Games] 3 and 4."
The big difference between the last round and this one is that Cora will probably have to ease his foot off the gas at least a little for Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) at Fenway, because those contests will be played on three consecutive days.
“We can be aggressive in Game 1 or 2, and then after that, we’ll see where we’re at and decide which route we go,” Cora said. “But having guys who are able to bounce back is very important. Everybody saw it in this past series. We’ll take care of Game 1 first, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll take care of Game 2 and we keep moving forward. I think the versatility of our guys will help us to maneuver our rotation and our pitching staff the way we want to, being aggressive.”
Who will Cora ask the most out of?
Expect Houck and Pivetta -- both of whom are starting pitchers by trade -- to again play big roles in this series as multi-inning guys. And you never know: Either one of those pitchers could also get a start.
One big mystery is how Cora will deploy Chris Sale, who has totaled 10 outs in his last two starts -- his ninth and 10th outings, respectively, coming back from Tommy John surgery.
“He’ll pitch,” said Cora. “He’ll be a part of this -- and he’ll be an important part of this.”
Looking back to ’18 for Cora clues -- first the ALCS
Glancing at box scores from the 2018 ALCS and World Series offers glimpses of how Cora could maneuver through this series.
After using only traditional relievers behind Sale in a loss in Game 1 to the Astros in the 2018 ALCS, Cora went to Rick Porcello for a key scoreless frame in his club’s victory in Game 2.
Porcello was back on the mound for a start in Game 4 three days later.
In Game 3, Nathan Eovaldi was dominant for six innings and the Red Sox built a big lead, so no “rovers,” as Cora likes to call them, were needed.
Though Game 4 was a memorable epic, which the Red Sox won 8-6, Cora again went with standard bullpen usage. However, there is one thing that stuck out about that night. David Price warmed up for what seemed like forever in the late innings of that game.
And then he started the very next day, when the Red Sox closed out the Astros in Game 5. Eovaldi also got four big outs in that game, with just one day of rest after his strong start in Game 3.
The Price-Eovaldi scenario was just another reminder of Cora’s unique style this time of year.
World Series pitching plans started innocently
One thing that helped the Red Sox during their 2018 run was closing out the Astros so quickly. That provided the team with four days off before facing the Dodgers in the World Series.
In Game 1 of the Fall Classic, Cora pulled another surprise. Even though Eovaldi had been dominant in his Game 3 starts of both the ALDS and ALCS, Cora asked the hard-throwing righty to be his eighth-inning setup man that night. Eovaldi obliged and dominated in his 16 pitches -- and the Red Sox won.
It was a formula Cora liked so much that he went to it again the next night in Game 2. This time, Eovaldi needed just 13 pitches to put away L.A. in the eighth.
Then the World Series pitching plans got crazy
After an off-day prior to the series switching to Los Angeles, it would seem Cora was going to be conservative considering he had a 2-0 lead in the World Series, and Games 3, 4 and 5 would be on three straight days.
Instead, a marathon Game 3 broke out and Cora rolled those dice. Price, who had started Game 2 just two days earlier, got two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
At least it seemed Eovaldi would be off the table for Game 3, right? Not only had he pitched in relief in the first two games, but he was on tap to start Game 4.
Then, Cora got into his “all-in” mode by the 12th inning, putting his chips on the table and watching as Eovaldi fired six brilliant frames. Unfortunately, the gallant effort ended in heartbreak, as Max Muncy took Eovaldi deep to open the bottom of the 18th.
What did Cora do after burning through his Game 4 starter? He asked Eduardo Rodriguez to move back to the rotation for a day, even though he hadn’t thrown more than 40 pitches in five weeks.
Rodriguez turned in a strong effort until Yasiel Puig ripped a three-run homer to put the Dodgers in front, 4-0, in the sixth inning. Cora later took the blame for asking too much of E-Rod.
But the Red Sox stormed back to win the game, 9-6.
For the final game of Boston’s magnificent postseason run, Cora had more surprises up his sleeve.
Rather than starting Sale on full rest, Cora had a hunch that Price was the hot hand to ride -- just four days after he had started Game 2, and two since he had pitched in relief.
It seemed like a bold idea until Price fired seven dazzling innings. When the Red Sox needed three more outs to win the World Series, Cora could have gotten boring and brought in closer Craig Kimbrel.
Instead, he called on Sale, who threw an inning of lethal pitches and ended the World Series with a slider that put Manny Machado down on one knee for strike three.
With Cora in October, you just never know how it will unfold.
Clearly over these next few days, all options will be on the table. And nothing Cora does should surprise anyone.