Alex Cora is pushing all his chips into the middle of the table.
He’s got a bad hand. A horrible hand. One of the worst possible hands.
And he’s betting everything on it.
David Price will start Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, Cora announced on MLB Network yesterday.
The pitcher with the worst record (0-9 as a starter) and the second-worst ERA (6.03 as a starter) in postseason history is going to face an Astros team that ranked No. 1 in OPS against left-handed pitchers this season.
Cora stored up piles of goodwill and trust in the bank after 108 wins and a convincing performance against the New York Yankees in the Division Series.
And he’s spending it all on this move.
“My only criticism after we interviewed him, I went back to Dave (Dombrowski) and I said ‘Dave, he’s a little confident,’ ” Red Sox principal owner John Henry said Tuesday night. “ ‘In fact, he’s overconfident.’ But he was born to be a manager, he’s a natural leader. I’ve never seen anybody do a better job of handling a clubhouse.”
Imagine the confidence it took to make this decision. Cora’s go-to line when discussing Price in the postseason is, “We trust him.”
The first-year skipper has shown faith in struggling players all year. Sometimes he was rewarded (Jackie Bradley Jr.). Occasionally, he wasn’t (Drew Pomeranz).
But the players have said they have faith in Cora no matter the decisions he makes. Would they not still stand by him and play hard for him if he told Price the Red Sox’ best chances of winning a World Series were with him in the bullpen?
It can’t get much worse than it was last Saturday. Sandy Leon’s glove would set the target, and more times than not Price’s pitches ended up nowhere near it. It cost him on an Aaron Judge home run, when Leon set up low and away and Price threw one over the middle. It hurt him multiple times when he walked Brett Gardner in the second inning. And then his final pitch of the game was again supposed to be low and away, but it ended up over the plate for Andrew McCutchen to smoke it off the Green Monster.
Maybe the manager saw something that most of us didn’t in that ugly performance. Perhaps most confusing is that Cora tends to be creative in his decision-making. There’s nothing creative about this. This was standard operating procedure.
Nathan Eovaldi could have been bumped up to start Game 2 after submitting the best performance by a Red Sox starter since John Lackey in the 2013 World Series. Eovaldi’s velocity went up, and so did his command and effectiveness as he dissected the Yankees over seven strong innings in winning Game 3 on Monday. His composure in that game didn’t surprise anybody in the Red Sox clubhouse. They knew his personality was fit for the postseason.
If the Sox went with Eovaldi over Price for Game 2, they would have other options for Games 3 and 4.
If Eovaldi pitches another gem and the bullpen is well rested going into the off day, how about using an “opener” to start Game 3? Hand the ball to Joe Kelly or Brandon Workman, a pair of former starters, to harness the first inning jitters and handle the most difficult part of the Astros lineup.
George Springer (.222, .620 OPS in 27 at-bats vs. Price), Jose Altuve (.346, .798 OPS in 26 at-bats) and Alex Bregman (.333, 1.232 OPS in nine at-bats) lead off for the world champs.
If one of the relievers can get the Red Sox started before Price comes in out of the bullpen, perhaps it’ll give the left-hander a better matchup to gather himself on the mound and find some rhythm.
If not, the bullpen takes over. All the Red Sox relievers can go multiple innings this time of year.
But trying to come back from a big early deficit is the worst-case scenario. Playoff teams are 14-2 when scoring first this October.
Or Rick Porcello could start Game 3 and ace Chris Sale can come back on three days’ rest for Game 4.
Or Eduardo Rodriguez could give it a go.
Alas, the debate doesn’t matter. The decision has been made.
Now, either Eovaldi or Porcello, who pitched out of their minds in the Division Series, will be able to make just one start in Game 4 in the ALCS. Price can make two.
Cora has been nailing these decisions all year. He might’ve batted 1.000 in the ALDS. But if he strikes out with this one and Price stinks again and the Red Sox take a predictable loss before flying out to Houston, the manager will get a heaping pile of blame.
After everything that’s gone right under Cora’s watch this year, it’ll be a shame if this is what’s remembered most about the 2018 season.