Alex Cora understands that, at any given time, someone inside his clubhouse is mad at him. Probably multiple people. Because he’s the manager.
The complainer may be a bench player who’s not playing. A grumpy reliever who wants a different role. The starting pitcher who wanted another inning. That’s the case on any club, but nonetheless, a new experience for a first-year manager on the 2018 Red Sox.
Happiness, confidence, and a sense of momentum for an individual all come into the calculus for a manager. There is some balance to be struck in the course of the regular season between clubhouse contentment and the immediate, win-now mandate.
Take J.D. Martinez’s time in the outfield, for instance. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s struggles aside, even at the season’s outset, it was clear Martinez’s desire to be in the outfield weighed in for Cora.
“I think it’s been good,” Cora said when asked about earning faith from players. “At the same time … the thing with J.D. is we’re very comfortable with him in the outfield. It’s not like we’re like — regardless, we said we’re going to be a good team that day.
“He makes good decisions. Obviously, he’s not as fast as other guys. But as far as positioning, we position him where he should be, so he’ll make plays from that spot. That’s where the [advance] information comes into play. And for him it’s very important to play the outfield. You know? We know that, so, he learns it.”
Then there’s the bench. A player can take some level of confidence out of being given a chance in a late-inning situation while struggling, even if the odds of winning are better with a different hitter at the plate. How much that confidence matters is hard to weigh.
Cora believes it showed up early in the season, when Sandy Leon had the go-ahead hit in the eighth inning on April 29. Leon, hitting poorly, broke a tie at 3 against the Rays with an opposite-field double down the left-field line. He didn’t destroy the ball, but the liner lifted Leon’s average to .129 at the time. Xander Bogaerts was available off the bench.
“There was one — Thank God — the Sandy hit,” Cora said. “And I was looking ahead actually. I’m like, well, we still got him. Pinch hitting’s not easy, first of all. People have to understand, especially against those guys [in late innings today]. So if you feel the at-bats are decent or they’re getting better, well, why not? He stayed inside the ball and he went the other way. Base hit. And I think for him, it meant the world.”
Leon went on to hit .350 in 13 games in May.
“That’s the payoff,” Cora said. “And I’m not saying he got hot because of that, but you feel good about yourself. So there’s a balancing act. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to win the game, put your team in the best position to win.
"You trust the process. You trust what you’re seeing behind closed doors and you’re like you know what, this is going to work out, and it’s working out."