Oct. 15, 2017 was a Sunday, and an off-day between Games 2 and 3 of the American League Championship Series, but as the rest of the Houston Astros’ players and coaches bused from the airport to Yankee Stadium for a late-afternoon workout, bench coach Alex Cora, with his bosses’ permission, headed into Manhattan and walked into a suite at the Palace Hotel at 51st and Madison, where Boston Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski and a team of his lieutenants was waiting for him.
By the time they parted ways, Cora had aced his job interview, and by the time owner John Henry finished speaking to Cora by phone a few days later, the Red Sox knew they had their man. On Oct. 22, the day before the Astros played Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox announced Cora’s hiring as the 47th manager in team history, replacing John Farrell.
A year later, Cora’s life has come full circle. After his Red Sox took down the New York Yankees in the Division Series, and the Astros swept the Cleveland Indians, Cora is returning to the ALCS, this time as the manager of the Red Sox — against the team that employed him a year ago and the manager under whom he served in last year’s playoffs, the Astros’ A.J. Hinch. Game 1 is Saturday night at Fenway Park.
“I still remember walking into that suite with all those [Red Sox] baseball guys,” Cora said Sept. 22, after the Red Sox had clinched the AL East division. “In the beginning I was a little bit intimidated, but at the end … I felt very comfortable.”
Cora, who turns 43 next week, arrives at this moment in the late stages of what has already been one of the greatest seasons for a rookie manager in baseball history, one that has made him a leading candidate to be named the league’s manager of the year next month. His Red Sox led the majors with 108 wins — the Astros were second, with 103 — and amid the intense scrutiny of a rare Red Sox-Yankees postseason series, his strategic moves across those four games drew effusive praise from fans, media and, most notably, his Red Sox bosses.
“He was a magician,” Henry told reporters Tuesday night following the clinching Game 4 of the ALDS. “He’s been bold since day one — since the first day of spring training. Even before spring training, he had ideas about what he wanted to do and what he wanted to change. He just did a tremendous job.”
Henry, in fact, had been one of the few members of the Red Sox brain trust who had any reservations about Cora during the interview process a year ago. “I went back to [Dombrowski] and I said, ‘Dave, he’s a little confident — in fact, he’s overconfident,’ ” Henry said. “But he was born to be a manager. He’s a natural leader.”
This was the year of the rookie manager in baseball, at least on the East Coast, where five teams — three of which had made the playoffs in 2017 — parted ways with veteran managers and hired much younger first-timers to guide their rosters.
Most of them stumbled. Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler was getting questions about his job security days into the season, after a couple of very public game-management missteps. With the New York Mets, Mickey Callaway started the season 11-1 but then found himself engulfed by typical Mets dysfunction on the way to a fourth-place finish.
Washington’s Dave Martinez had his bullpen usage criticized publicly by his players and presided over arguably the game’s biggest underachievers. And the Yankees’ Aaron Boone was blasted in the media for his questionable pitching moves in the pivotal losses in Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS. The Mets and Nationals had been among the teams expressing interest in Cora last fall, before he went to the Red Sox.
“There were two teams that called,” Cora said in September, “and I’m like, ‘No, I’m good. I’m in the middle of the process, and we’re going somewhere else.’ It felt good, because I’d been — not fighting for it, but [going through the interview process] for a few years, and to tell somebody no, it was: ‘Hey, I’m in power now.’ This is the place I wanted to be.”
Against the backdrop of the struggles of his fellow rookie managers, as well as the singular intensity of the Boston media, Cora’s performance has been remarkable. That was never more so than in the Division Series, when, in stark contrast to Boone’s missteps, he showed an uncanny knack for making precisely the right moves at precisely the right times — from using starter Rick Porcello in a stabilizing relief appearance in Game 1, to starting reserve infielder Brock Holt at second base in Game 3 (and getting rewarded with the first cycle in postseason history), to his impeccable navigation of the final 12 outs in Tuesday night’s clincher at Yankee Stadium.
One move in particular demonstrated Cora’s deft handling of superstars and situations. When ace Chris Sale, the victor in Game 1, first approached Cora and said he was prepared to pitch in relief Tuesday night, Cora literally laughed it off. But the Red Sox were sure to send Sale to their bullpen Tuesday night, and after huddling with his coaching staff during the seventh inning, Cora made the call to bring Sale in to pitch the eighth.
“Everybody was on board,” Cora recalled. “I even shouted to the dugout, ‘Hey, we’re all in. He’s coming in.’ ”
“That’s what was sort of missing the last couple of years,” Henry said of Cora’s decisiveness. “I didn’t think we were very aggressive in general.”
After the Red Sox clinched the division, Cora made the decision to rest most of his core players — Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez — the next night in Cleveland. But alone among them, Martinez refused to sit, responding to a text message from Cora, informing him he wouldn’t be playing, by replying, “Yes, I’m playing.” Martinez started at designated hitter the next night.
“We’re fortunate to have in A.C. a guy who is not very far removed from playing the game, which definitely helps,” reliever Matt Barnes said of Cora, who played from 1998 to 2011 and spent parts of four seasons as a Red Sox utility infielder. “He understands the game. He does a great job of communicating with everybody about what’s going on.”
It is Cora’s intense loyalty that will be at the center of the dialogue in the early stages of the ALCS, in particular his decision, announced Wednesday, to start veteran lefty David Price against the Astros in Game 2, Sunday night at Fenway Park, despite Price’s 0-9 record as a starter in the postseason, with his most recent stumble coming in a 1 2/3-inning dud in Game 2 of the ALDS that saw him booed off the Fenway mound.
After that game, Cora remained adamant that Price would remain one of his starting pitchers going forward, rather than moving him to a bullpen role. Cora has defended Price by bringing up Justin Verlander, the Astros’ scheduled starter in Game 1, who had a 5.57 ERA in eight starts in his first two trips to the postseason and only later became one of the great postseason pitchers of his generation, winning MVP honors in last fall’s ALCS.
“Nobody remembers that he wasn’t very good early in his career in the playoffs,” Cora told reporters. “And now he’s kind of like the poster child of playoff baseball.”
If the choice to start Price goes at all like the majority of Cora’s other moves this month, he will throw seven scoreless innings against the Astros. Or else Price will flame out again, and Cora will figure out another way to get through the rest of the game. It’s not supposed to be so easy, and it typically isn’t, which is precisely why the Red Sox feel so fortunate to have Cora guiding them this October.