I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox are moving on beyond the American League Division Series for the first time sine 2013, finally getting over the hurdle after stalling out for two consecutive years. Obviously, earning a berth in the ALCS is not the end of the road for the Red Sox and they have more work to get where they want to go. That said, it definitely feels good to get over this hurdle. It was very clear from listening to the postgame press interviews from the celebratory clubhouse that it was a big relief for the players who had been here the last two years, too. We know there are a lot of differences between this 2018 squad and the one that stalled out the last two seasons. The offense has transformed from 2017 behind a new approach and J.D. Martinez. The starting pitcher faltered horribly in those two first-round exits, but the Red Sox got three very good performances from their starters in this series. Above all else, though, watching this series made me believe the biggest difference was in the dugout with Alex Cora at the helm.
I will admit to not necessarily believing the Red Sox had to fire John Farrell after last year’s ALDS loss. I certainly understood the decision and didn’t fight it too hard, but I wouldn’t have been too worked up if they had decided to retain the guy who won two consecutive divisions. In fact, for all of his faults (and Farrell had plenty as a manager), I still think he gets a disproportionate amount of flak for the team’s late-season failures compared to the players who actually did the failing. That being said, things were definitely stale in that clubhouse and those teams did lack some punch. It couldn’t be more clear at this point that the Red Sox made the right decision to move on. After moving on, though, it would have been very easy to make the wrong decision on their new leader. 166 games into the year, I think it’s safe to say they did not make the wrong decision here.
In hindsight, after watching this team all year, it’s clear that Cora has been the perfect kind of presence in this dugout and clubhouse. To be fair, most were excited about the move at the time and his reputation for connecting to players was the main reason. Of course, those types of qualities are hard to really be sure about until we actually see it play out. From the very first time we met Cora it was clear things were going to be different. He had a strange way of giving off a patient vibe while also being passionate. He knew what he was expecting and he knew exactly how he was going to achieve those goals. Cora’s demeanor with the media was particularly telling as he did not seem rattled or taken aback at all by the frenzy that can be the Boston sports media landscape.
When it became time to implement his plans, things went perfectly. Perhaps the most underrated portion of Sale’s year has been building his coaching staff, bringing in a group of like-minded coaches to hammer points home. For example, Cora gets all of the credit for preaching aggression at the plate from his hitters, and justifiably so. It’s definitely a strategy he endorses and he was looking for a hitting coach who would agree with him. Still, Tim Hyers is the one who has been tasked to hammer the point home to the batters, and he’s done so exceedingly well. Keeping Dana LeVangie around and promoting him to pitching coach was also huge, as the continuity within the organization has proven invaluable.
Most important of all of Cora’s qualities, though, has been his ability to connect with players. It’s always hard from the outside to know how the clubhouse is running, but every sign is that players have a real connection with the manager. Although I certainly don’t agree with every in-game decision made by Cora — there isn’t a manager in the world with whom everyone will always agree — but the in-game portion of the job is not the most important. Instead, it’s about running a smooth clubhouse and keeping everyone engaged. It’s clear that Cora knows his team, and it’s clear that the players trust every move he makes. Whether that means getting a day off or starting pitchers taking an early exit to manage a workload, it’s easy to see those things backfiring. Clear communication has allowed Cora to get players rest without annoying them.
Ultimately, it’s all about Cora knowing his players and finding out exactly how to get the best out of them. That was on full display in this ALDS. He consistently pulled the right strings, particularly in the last two games. The players play the game and deserve the most credit, but Cora’s fingerprints were all over that series win and all over the team’s 111 wins this season. Only time will tell how long this run is going to last, but one thing is clear. This is what an Alex Cora team looks like, and it bodes extremely well for the future both short- and long-term.