Alex Cora did plenty of soul-searching during his suspension over his role in the Astros cheating scandal, but a more relevant question from a Red Sox perspective might be this -- what did he learn from 2019?
Cora authored about as perfect a debut as one can imagine in 2018, leading the Red Sox to a franchise-record 108 wins and World Series title. The follow-up told an entirely different story, however, with Cora arriving in spring training and declaring that the Red Sox needn't turn the page, and then stubbornly insisting that everything would be fine as the playoffs slipped away.
The Red Sox ended up winning 84 games and missing out on a chance to defend their title. Months later, Cora was gone, banished from the game for a year.
Now that he's back as Red Sox manager, it's fair to ask what he took away from that lost 2019 season.
"If I had to do it again, maybe a little bit I think urgency in the sense that in this division, if you let somebody get ahead in the pack, usually they win the division," Cora said via Zoom on Thursday. "We did it in '18, the Yankees did it in '19, the Rays did it in '20, so from my end, probably OK, yeah we're going to be fine, but we have to start playing better baseball early on."
The 2019 Red Sox opened the season with a 3-8 West Coast trip and never quite recovered. Cora points to three losses that season as defining.
One June 26, the Red Sox had a chance to sweep the White Sox before heading to London for two games with the Yankees. They led 7-6 in the ninth before Matt Barnes allowed a go-ahead two-run homer to Jose Abreu.
"The last game against the White Sox before we went to London, when Abreu hit a home run in the ninth inning against Barnes before we got on that long trip to London to face the Yankees, that was a season changer," Cora said. "Like (ESPN's) Tim Kurkjian used to say, that's a circle game, we'll call it that."
The Red Sox went on to allow 29 runs in two days overseas and were swept by the Yankees.
The next game came right before the trade deadline. The Red Sox had a chance to complete a four-game sweep of the Yankees and send a message -- the had won the opener 19-3 -- but they dropped a 9-6 decision to start an eight-game losing streak. It didn't help that management stood pat at the deadline, sending the message that the players weren't worth the investment of further resources.
"We win three in a row, we've got (Chris) Sale on the mound on a Sunday night game, the trade deadline was one or two days away from that and we lose against the Yankees that Sunday, leading off to that seven or eight-game losing streak," Cora said.
The final blow came on Aug. 31 in Anaheim. The Red Sox started the day just four games behind the Rays in the loss column for a wild card spot. They led 4-3 in the eighth before Ryan Brasier imploded and the Angels exploded for seven runs, including a back-breaking three-run homer from Albert Pujols. The Red Sox lost seven of their next 10 games and the season was over.
"It's not like football or basketball, like must-wins," Cora said. "You have to be as consistent as possible trying to win series, but I can, from the top of my head, I can tell you three games that for me, changed the course of our season.
"Overall, it wasn't a great season," Cora added. "Talking to some people during the season, for everything we went through health-wise, I don't want to say we were lucky to win 84 games, but in September, we were out of the race. We took care of some people and it seemed like we weren't that great in September, but if I had to do it again, maybe a little bit (more) urgency."
Cora also mentioned that he learned it's asking too much of one reliever to face the heart of the order on a nightly basis, as he did with right-hander Matt Barnes. But big picture, it comes down to create a sense of urgency, which means the start of the 2021 season should be particularly telling.