Alex Cora's best game as Red Sox manager was a painful loss


NEW YORK — On the night the Red Sox fell out of first place for the first time since March, on the night the Yankees stormed back and dealt the Sox a 9-6 loss in front of a hostile and sold-out crowd, Alex Cora managed his best game yet.

Before the Yankees teed off on the Sox bullpen, Cora turned to his bench in the seventh inning, earlier than most of his pinch-hit moves. Catcher Sandy Leon was pulled for Brock Holt. Holt didn’t reach, but that’s beside the point. A night after Cora oddly made no pinch-hit moves, Cora and Holt gave the Sox a better chance to start the inning with a runner.

That’s the whole idea: position the Sox as best possible. Calling on Craig Kimbrel in the eighth inning achieved that goal as well. On a nightly basis, the manager's job is predicated on process over result. Over a 162-game season, results will follow more often than not.

The closer became the flashpoint. Cora tabbed his best reliever when it mattered most: with runners on the corners, a 6-5 lead, and the top of the order coming up in the eighth inning after Matt Barnes got into trouble. But Kimbrel left his fastball over the plate and got hammered. Brett Gardner put the Yanks ahead by two with a triple, and Aaron Judge followed with a screaming line drive to center for a two-run homer, a quintessential frozen rope that went 117 mph off the bat.

The worst mistake the Red Sox — or their fans — could make after Wednesday is to believe the result invalidates the process. That Kimbrel, one of the greatest relievers anywhere, should not be asked to pitch in the eighth inning in the future because he didn’t get the job done this time. 

The Yankees are a scorching hot team. They have the best power-hitting team in the game. 

The best-laid plans can fall apart. But the Sox’ plan was right.

Kimbrel isn’t comfortable in the eighth inning, you say?

How is it that every other reliever in the bullpen can pitch in various innings, anywhere from the fifth through the eighth to extras, and still be expected to succeed, but not the quote-unquote closer? Do you really think Kimbrel looks up and sees the No. 8 on the scoreboard rather than the No. 9 and morphs into a pumpkin?

If you think highly of Kimbrel’s ability, you understand he's good because he has a 96-97 mph fastball and a wicked curve. If he can handle the pressure of the vaunted save situation in the ninth inning, don’t you think he can handle the pressure of a different inning with the game on the line?

“Not at all,” Kimbrel said when asked if he has to adjust to the eighth. “I’ve got to come in and get outs. It doesn’t matter if it’s the eighth or ninth inning, especially in situations like that. Like I said, I just didn’t do it.”

Kimbrel probably wouldn't admit discomfort, even if he felt some. But logic backs this one up: there’s a guy in the batter’s box. The job for the pitcher is to get him out. Every other reliever does that job in different innings. Kimbrel is better than every other reliever the Sox have.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the inning is something that actually affects Kimbrel. How great an effect could it be? To the point that someone else in the Sox ‘pen is better equipped than him, or is even close? 

Kimbrel is not standing on the mound, staring at the scoreboard, sobbing. He was ready for the eighth inning. He was notified ahead of time whom he would be brought in for, Brett Gardner, and he was not rushed. (He doesn’t take long to get warm anyway.) Cora was hoping that there would be no more than one runner on base, and two outs when Gardner came up.

Kimbrel isn’t comfortable with traffic, you say?

There is indeed little room for error with runners on base. Kimbrel is a strikeout pitcher. He always seeks strikeouts and probably does even moreso when there are runners on. Hitters are not as likely to expand as they are in the ninth inning.

“Especially with a runner on third, there’s definitely a smaller margin of error,” Kimbrel said Wednesday. “Right there, I didn’t want [Gardner] to put the ball in play. Trying to strike him out, and wasn’t able to do it.”

Perhaps this is an area Kimbrel can grow, not trying too hard to fan people. But he’s always been that way.

Again: he is the best option the Sox have with runners on. Or in any situation. His fastball does not drop to 88 mph or even 93 mph because someone is dancing off third base. He is not so mentally weak that he sees a runner on third base and cowers and forgets how to pitch.

If there’s a little adaptation to be had to pitching with runners on base, so be it. Ask the team’s greatest reliever to adapt a bit. Ask him to prove his excellence in a way that goes beyond that stockpile of 300 traditional saves. He’s not bouncing his curveball after 40 feet because there's, oh heavens, traffic.

You're OK with a lesser pitcher coming in with runners on base, but not the best one you have?

Kimbrel is too good to be locked behind tradition's door. He doesn't need to be coddled with clean innings. Cora knows that — the competitor in Kimbrel must know it as well — and neither the pitcher nor manager should forget it because of Wednesday’s result.


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