There aren't many in-game moves to weigh when a team is decimating its opponents. After the Red Sox dropped consecutive games for the first time this season, we have a reminder of how little we know about Alex Cora's in-game managing philosophy.
The 2018 Red Sox have been a wild success so far, and the changes in the atmosphere alone make Cora a success as well. But he may need to reconsider a few things when it comes to that other part of the job, managing the lineup and the bullpen and the X's and O's. (Even if it means sacrificing some good will in the clubhouse at times.)
Managers have to constantly balance keeping players happy, fresh and the present. The present cannot -- and should not -- always be favored. Sometimes, though, the present can be pushed too far aside. Sunday's 4-1 loss to the A's seemed like one of those days.
MOOKIE MUST BAT
The most egregious mistake Cora made on Sunday was leaving Mookie Betts in the on-deck circle, with Christian Vazquez at the plate for the final out.
If Cora were determined to give Betts a full day off for a health reason, that would be one thing. Betts was available, and it's therefore inexcusable to let the game slip by with him in waiting.
"It has to be the perfect spot for him," Cora told reporters in Oakland, including MassLive.com. "He was ready to run earlier in the game. If J.D. [Martinez in the eighth inning] were to get on with two outs and they had the closer, we felt we could run on him and put pressure on him and get the go-ahead run at second. Probably he was going to run there. But besides that, it would have to be the perfect spot for him to change the game.”
Had Vazquez reached, Betts would have represented the tying run at the plate. Is that the so-called perfect spot Cora sought? The chances Betts hits a game-tying home run are not high. The rally needed to continue in some form, and Betts needed to be given a chance to do so.
Looking for a future moment that may not arrive for your best hitter is not sound managing in the ninth inning.
The same logic that surrounds Betts appears applicable to Hanley Ramirez and Eduardo Nunez, who were both out of the starting lineup as well. There's no indication those two were unavailable, so what were they being saved for?
Both Vazquez and Tzu-Wei Lin batted with two men on in the seventh inning, when the game was tied at 1-1, and did not get the job done. Cora could have pinch-hit then too.
Lin and Vazquez are important defensively. Delaying pinch-hitting appearances until after the seventh came with a leg to stand on: Save the bullets for later to better the defense. But those bullets were never used.
HOW MUCH REST IS NEEDED, AND WHEN IS BEST?
At some point, Cora's strategy of resting players was going to invite wider scrutiny. The concept is great: increase performance by keeping players fresh. Cora recently pointed out that Sox players are physically small relative to some teams. Their bodies, in turn, may need more downtime.
What remains something of a guess is how much rest is really needed. What's the right number? Probably, for each player, it varies. Not every move made with rest in mind is equally smart.
It's one thing to rest players. It's another to rest three regulars -- and two of your best hitters -- at once. Every game counts, whether you're resting players in April or the day after a division clincher.
Cora before the game told reporters he was resting the regulars to take advantage of the scheduled off-day Monday. Was the trade-off worth it? Did Nunez and Ramirez need the entirety of the day off?
Nunez, coming off a knee injury to end the 2017 season, has been playing complete games regularly. Perhaps he could be pulled sometimes for a defensive replacement to gain rest.
For example: Nunez played every inning of the sweep of the Angels, during which the Sox outscored Anaheim 27-3. He played every inning of the next two games in Oakland, as well.
Someone who did not play a single inning in the field during that stretch: Blake Swihart, who seems exempt from Cora's plan to keep everyone fresh defensively. Swihart was the designated hitter Sunday, seemingly forced into the lineup more than strategically used.
WAS SUNDAY ALL ABOUT CONFIDENCE?
As speculation: Maybe Cora didn't pinch-hit Betts for Vazquez in the ninth because he wanted Vazquez, his starting catcher, to have the opportunity to earn the right to future big at-bats. Vazquez has been struggling. Maybe the choice was made so that, in a similar spot in the future, Vazquez cannot turn around and tell Cora he feels slighted if someone does bat in his place.
And maybe that's why Swihart was not asked to bunt with men on in the seventh inning.
Same goes for David Price in the eighth inning. Perhaps Cora was trying to give Price some confidence and leeway when he left him in with two on, the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters up, one out and a tie gamed at 1-1. Going forward, after Price did not come through, perhaps Cora will have an easier time taking Price out in a key spot.
Would that be worth the loss on Sunday?
Even if Cora boosted Price's confidence by letting him stay in, he might have sent the opposite message to others in the Red Sox bullpen, who were kept away from a key moment.
The Sox have been careful with workload all April. As a jam developed Sunday, it felt a perfect moment to establish some confidence in the eighth-inning crew. The inning was high stress and Price was creeping up on 100 pitches. Plus, between the relievers and Price, who needed the moment more?
Carson Smith was warming. Once Price got the second out of the inning with a strikeout of Jed Lowrie, Cora went with a gut feeling rather than something pre-planned.
“We had Smith ready, but it doesn't matter,” Cora told reporters, including NESN. "The way [Price] got [Jed Lowrie] out, you know, you could see, you know, he still had his fastball was good enough, and the pitch to Jed was probably the one that made me make the decision.”
In other words: One pitch to Lowrie made Cora think Price was better equipped than a fresh arm. Gut feelings are fine for a manager occasionally, but this seemed a textbook moment: go to the 'pen. Pulling Price was an easy first guess, not second guess:
KIMBREL'S BEING SAVED FOR SAVES, NOT BIGGEST MOMENTS
The Red Sox can win the division with Craig Kimbrel as an old-school, saves-hungry closer who does not want to pitch in the eighth inning -- and only the eighth -- if the game is on the line. They've shown they can do that. But their chances are worse for it.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell on Sunday had a former traditional closer, Jeremy Jeffress, escape a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning of what wound up being a 4-2 Milwaukee victory.
"Today's sixth inning by J.J. was absolutely incredible. You can't do any better than that," Counsell said. "We make a big deal about the ninth inning but that was the game right there."
Counsell's not talking about the eighth. He's talking about the sixth.
Entering Tuesday, Kimbrel will have pitched once in eight days, in a blowout in Anaheim just to get work in. He did not warm in the eighth inning Sunday. There is no argument to be made that using Kimbrel on Sunday for two outs in the eighth would have tired him out.
Here's what Cora said during spring training about Kimbrel in the eighth: "We'll sit down with him throughout spring training. People think it's a big adjustment. If you start looking at the numbers, you don't lose too many saves if it's the way you want to use him. We're not talking about the lower third of the lineup. We're talking the middle of the lineup, eighth inning, certain situations. What I feel is the game on the line . . . We'll sit down and talk about it and he'll understand where we're coming from. And as long as he's healthy he'll do it.”
He's healthy. He's not doing it. The pitcher appear more concerned with saves than what's best for the team, and the manager appears at the pitcher's mercy.