The Red Sox may have bludgeoned the Rays to the tune of 20 hits and five home runs on Friday, but they won because of Alex Cora.
The battle-tested manager made two pivotal decisions that keyed the comeback from a 5-2 first-inning hole en route to a 14-6 victory in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. Play returns to Boston on Sunday with Nathan Eovaldi on the mound, a raucous crowd awaiting, and a very real chance that the Red Sox book passage to the ALCS on Marathon Monday night.
First, Cora yanked ineffective starter Chris Sale after one inning and handed the ball to his most dynamic reliever, right-hander Tanner Houck. This took incredible guts. The Red Sox had been shut out a night earlier, and if they never score, they've burned Houck in a non-competitive loss and you can kiss the series goodbye.
But Cora showed no interest in trying to piece together a comeback. He handed the ball to Houck with the expectation that he'd lock down the Rays without the deficit ballooning. And just to make his point clear, he stalked the dugout with a message for his troops, which brings us to his second decision, which was purely motivational.
"I just remember going into the dugout and A.C. is coming up and down the dugout just, 'It's all right, we got a whole game, eight more innings. You know, keep going,'" said outfielder Alex Verdugo. "I felt like that really set the tone."
Entering the series, the Red Sox didn't seem to own too many advantages, but the dugout was definitely one of them. Rays counterpart Kevin Cash, a former teammate of Cora's in Boston, may be the defending Manager of the Year, but Cora owns the better postseason resume.
He has yet to lose a playoff series, thanks to tremendous talent in 2018, but also aggression, when he deployed his starters as relievers to paper over a relatively weak bullpen. He could've let Sale give it another go in the second inning on Friday -- the veteran represents the heart and soul of the rotation and has earned that deference -- but Cora knew he had nothing. If he's knocked out in the second with the Rays leading 8-2, then the series and the season are over.
Likewise, Cora could've summoned Martin Perez, the one long man on his roster now that Garrett Richards is down with a bad hamstring, in an attempt to build a treacherous rope bridge to his higher-leverage arms. But he chose neither path.
"What happened, I think, was Tanner Houck," Cash saluted. "He was really tough."
Houck delivered five innings of one-run ball. Facing a similar quandary after seeing rookie starter Shane Baz overwhelmed by the moment, Cash didn't summon his most overpowering arms. He instead went to crafty right-hander Collin McHugh, who served up a pair of homers. He then tabbed Matt Wisler, who doesn't throw hard enough to scare J.D. Martinez. The injured DH took a pair of strikes, measured Wisler's inconsistent slider, and then hammered a mistake to dead center for the go-ahead three-run homer, unleashing the onslaught.
By the seventh, Cora could summon the two relievers he trusts most, right-handers Ryan Brasier and Hansel Robles. Brasier struck out the side and Robles nearly followed suit before allowing an infield single and inducing a lazy fly ball to center.
The game ended with Cora utilizing his three best relievers and Cash failing to tab any of his most dominating arms. No Andrew Kittredge, no Pete Fairbanks, no J.P. Feyereisen. McHugh posted great numbers during the season (1.55 ERA), but he wins on guile, not stuff. One manager treated the game like a regular-season tilt. The other pulled out all the stops to win a do-or-die playoff battle.
And now the momentum has turned, and we're heading back to Boston, where the Red Sox' biggest advantage will be standing on the dugout steps.