Turn the page? Alex Cora found the concept bewildering.
When the Red Sox manager arrived in Fort Myers this spring, he saw no reason to stiff-arm 2018. Pages only need turning after negative outcomes, not when they're filled with champagne-soaked confetti.
"Do we really want to turn the page?" Cora asked in February. "It's a book and we wrote a chapter last year and let's write a new chapter this year, but we can always go back … and learn from it."
Cora's approach flew in the face of the time-honored athletic tradition of pretending all the good stuff never happened. Famous curmudgeons like Bill Belichick, Gregg Popovich, and Dick Williams chose not to dwell on past glories when defending their various titles, and pluralization there should probably be a giveaway.
They recognized that defective piece of human nature known as complacency. It lives inside all of us, just waiting to stir from a nice long nap and recline on a rock in the sun.
Belichick began chanting "no days off" within hours of beating the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Popovich was as likely to explode at Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili in Year 15 as in 2002. Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona once told me that when he played for Williams, "you could ride an elevator with him and he'd pretend he didn't know you."
They didn't so much turn the page as burn the book. So when Cora opened spring training by proclaiming the Red Sox would embrace 2018 instead of walling it up in the catacombs like something out of Poe, it was fair to wonder: could this counterintuitive approach work?
Eleven games into the 2019 season, about the best we can say in response is it's a good thing there are 151 games to play.
The 3-8 Red Sox are learning lessons with every contest, including Sunday's 1-0 victory in Arizona to avoid a sweep. But Cora is learning them, too.
For the last two years, he could be forgiven for believing his leavings filled the air with the scent of the sweetest potpourri. He departed the broadcast booth to join the 2017 Astros as bench coach, promptly winning a World Series. He then left Houston to become Red Sox manager, promptly winning another title with the most overwhelming season in franchise history.
Along the way, he impressed with his unflappability and infectious cockiness. If Cora were a gesture, it would be a dismissive wave. "We'll be fine," he said after virtually every crushing loss, including a seven-hour, 18-inning World Series stunner. Two days later, the Red Sox hoisted a trophy.
But 2019 has arrived like an overhand right, and for the first time in his managerial career, Cora finds himself staggered and blinking away blood. The last defending champions to open worse than 3-8 were the 1998 Marlins of fire-sale vintage, who went 1-10 and finished 52 games behind the Braves.
Before Sunday's finale in Arizona, Cora acknowledged the challenges 2018 never posed, quoting assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett.
"Last year was Disney World," Cora told reporters. "This year is real baseball."
The Red Sox believe they're playing hard, but they're not playing smart, and they're definitely not playing well. Perhaps Sunday's taut victory will spark them. Mitch Moreland broke a scoreless tie in the seventh with a solo homer and a bullpen day made it stand, starting with three solid innings from Hector Velazquez and finishing with three more from Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier.
But elevating this game over the 10 that preceded it would be a mistake, because the issues plaguing those eight losses remain real. The big five starters are 0-7 with a 9.13 ERA and have allowed 16 home runs. Ace Chris Sale isn't so much a condor at the moment as an egret, his velocity dipping into the upper-80s. Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez also own strikeout-to-walk ratios around 1-to-1. David Price has been the best of the bunch through two turns, and his ERA stands at 6.00.
The offense can best be described as inopportunistic, if only that were a word, with defending MVP Mookie Betts putting himself into bad counts, and regulars like Christian Vazquez, Eduardo Nunez, Rafael Devers, and Jackie Bradley Jr. providing next to nothing.
Defensively, we've watched balls fall between Gold Glovers Bradley and Betts, who also nearly collided chasing a sacrifice fly on opening day. J.D. Martinez has booted one ball and failed to corral another. It's hard to exhale while Devers throws across the diamond.
They've made some bad outs on the bases, too, including Betts completing Ramon Laureano's hat trick at third in Oakland.
"If you think about it, (last year) was such a perfect season that we didn't go through this," Cora told reporters. "It doesn't mean that we can't bounce back from this. There were periods last year we went through struggles, whatever, we got swept in Tampa. We went to Seattle, lose two out of three, four, whatever it was. Minnesota. People forget we were in second place at one point in the season and we bounced back and did what we did."
He's right, of course, but they never struggled like this. Fortunately, more than 90 percent of the schedule remains, and half of the American League should eventually don snorkels and settle into tank mode. In the meantime, here's some advice for Cora and Co. as they prepare to receive their World Series rings on Tuesday, in light of the last two weeks:
Turn the page.
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