Alex Cora

What we learned from the disagreement between Alex Cora and Carson Smith

What we learned from the disagreement between Alex Cora and Carson Smith

BOSTON — In a public back and forth between Carson Smith and Alex Cora the last two days, Smith acted as pitchers often do: quiet until it's too late. More than anything else, it's unfortunate.

Cora, meanwhile, positively answered one of the questions that existed when he took the Red Sox’ job: can he establish authority, or will he always be buddy-buddy?

Smith’s belief that fatigue contributed to his shoulder subluxation has drawn attention because it suggested misuse by Cora and the Red Sox. After a moment when the pitcher made a very poor choice to slam down his glove in anger, Smith indicated he was predisposed to being hurt. That sounded like he was trying to assign blame elsewhere.

Factually, having just pitched in an outing, Smith was predisposed to being hurt. Any level of fatigue inherently makes an arm more vulnerable. Smith is not wrong on a technical level. His appearance Monday was his sixth in nine days and his third in four days, as well. Fatigue easily could have contributed to the situation. 

But the real question is this: was that fatigue unexpected, or somehow against Smith’s verbalized wishes, and therefore a mistake on Cora and the staff’s part? There’s no evidence of that. And if Smith did not speak up about what he may have felt was overuse, then no one is at fault aside from him.

“I don’t agree with it. I don’t agree with it,” Cora said when asked about Smith's usage comments. “On a daily basis we talk to pitchers and [ask] how they feel. And if they don’t feel they can pitch that day, we stay away from them. So it caught me by surprise, and if he felt that way, he should have told it to us, he should have mentioned it. Actually there was a day, in New York, or Toronto — ah New York. We talked and he said he wasn’t available that day and we stayed away from him."

Here’s what needs to be remembered: pitchers are often dishonest when it comes to their physical state. They rarely want to take themselves out of use. They want to be good teammates and contribute as much as possible and generally appear tough. Inside every bullpen, there’s always a pitcher who feels underused, and always a pitcher who feels overused. But a lot goes unsaid.

When MassLive.com approached Smith Wednesday about whether he had been overused, Smith didn’t back away, saying “I’ve said what I needed to say.”

Smith, then, at a time of high emotion, seemed to be vocalizing a real feeling of his, but one he had not previously shared. He was trying to be a good teammate, and it bit him in the rear end.

“Let’s be honest,” pitching coach Dana LeVangie said Wednesday afternoon. "A lot of our bullpen guys have been under water for a little bit. So, yeah I mean they’ve pitched a lot of innings. You know, I don’t want to say this loosely, but that’s what they do out there, and we’re hopefully trying to get him back on track. I mean, again, unfortunately a lot of guys will end up taking the ball when they’re not feeling their best, and to a man I can probably say most of those guys, most of our guys do it.

“I don’t take anything that he said as a negative. But there’s also days where he pitched two in a row and we said, ‘Smitty, you’re down today.’ Like you’re an emergency only [option]. We do that with most of the guys. We just knew he had a day off before [Monday]."

Bottom line: Smith should have said something. His use may have been a problem for him, but no one can read his mind.

Meanwhile, the way Cora handled Smith’s response is a glimpse into how the manager handles discord: head-on, with a preference for exerting authority rather than catering to a player's feelings.

The first words Cora said when asked about Smith’s usage — “I don’t agree with it” — were pointed and direct. He repeated them, too.

Said another way: I, the manager, think you, the player, are wrong.

Then, when Cora was asked if he had talked to Smith about it yet: “Nah.”

One word, no explanation. Implication: he’s the boss. No explanation needed, apparently.

Cora was asked if he plans to speak to Smith, and Cora said he did. At the same time, Cora also made clear that there were other things he prioritized first rather than an upset reliever who hurt himself.

“We will [talk],” Cora said. “I guess, today, honestly, today was a busy day from getting up at 5:30 in the morning to coming all the way here. I mean, yeah. [My young twins] were bad today. Yeah. Oh God. I mean, I was feeding them for lunch. And I quit. Like dude, I went to [my girlfriend] Angelica, like, ‘Hey, I gotta get to the ballpark.' It’s been a tough one today. But yeah we’ll talk. We’ll talk, yeah.”

Life does happen, even for a baseball manager. Smith and Cora both approached everything with what seemed like honesty. And if you look closely, there’s nothing really amiss. Smith probably feels an immense amount of guilt. It's a terrible situation for him. He appeared on the brink of tears speaking to reporters on Tuesday. 

If he really thinks Cora is the reason he is hurt right now, Smith is misguided, and he’ll see that at some point. Cora, meanwhile, showed that his approach to conflict management will not always be appeasement or aversion.

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Drellich: J.D. Martinez should be talk of the town

Drellich: J.D. Martinez should be talk of the town

BOSTON — Maybe J.D. Martinez is lost a bit in Mookie Betts’ shadow. Maybe obliterated expectations have dulled the senses.

“Well,” you say, “we didn’t bring him here to hit singles.”

Heck, maybe the Celtics are to blame. Whatever the reason, Martinez deserves more fanfare.

Because were he struggling, were he merely adequate, angst would bubble up. We’d raise questions of what the Sox are paying for, questions of whether he's cut out for this town.

Instead, Martinez has hits in 14 of his last 15 games. He’s hitting .400 lifetime at Fenway Park. He has a .405 average in his last 19 games, and six home runs in his last 12 games. 

Ho-hum. But that doesn't seem fair.

Craig Kimbrel in 2016, Chris Sale in 2017, Martinez in 2018 -- hey, maybe big Bad Boston, the angriest fishbowl in the Northeast, doesn’t destroy everyone dropped in its tank. Credit to Martinez for handling Boston well, and credit to the Sox for adding someone who, to this point, seems plenty comfortable here. 

Even more importantly, credit to them for adding someone of such extraordinary ability at the plate.

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"Unreal. He’s just killing the ball,” said Xander Bogaerts, who watched Martinez hit his 11th homer of the season from the on-deck circle Monday night. “Every day. Every day. Pretty much every at-bat. I think he swings a lot early on in the count too. I mean, he’s just been huge.”

With homers Sunday and Monday, Martinez has has homers in consecutive games for the first time as a member of the Red Sox. Both were first-pitch shots, as Bogaerts noticed.

Martinez’s relationship with Mookie Betts is well known, but his obsessive approach to hitting has had a trickle-down effect elsewhere.

“We all talk to him,” Bogaerts said. “They’re good hitters. They’re great hitters, actually. You got to be stupid to not want to talk to them or not try to talk to them. They might not be the same hitters as you, but their thoughts might help you.”

Bogaerts didn’t want to divulge what exactly he and Martinez have gotten into.

“Ah, yeah, I’ll keep it with us,” Bogaerts said. “But I obviously talk to him. Not on a daily basis about swings and stuff like that, but obviously, we have talked about some swing path stuff.”

Martinez’s power the other way may be his most impressive trait. Few righthanded hitters can take inside pitches out to right field or right-center. Manny Ramirez territory is inherently rarified.

“I’m trying to see the ball deep. Trying to get the ball deep and not chase, not be jumpy, not go out there and get the ball,” Martinez said Thursday in New York. “Pretty much my approach is to get the ball deep up the middle.”

Pure strength plays a role as well.

“To me it’s a little bit of both. I think if you get to technique, for me I’m all about mechanics and stuff like that,” Martinez said. “If you’re generating the power from the right places, then, you let the 97 mph fastball do the work.”

After Monday’s 6-5 Sox loss to the A’s, the major league’s leaders in slugging percentage read as follows: Betts (.766), Manny Machado (.669), Mike Trout (.650) and Martinez (.641). His 11 home runs put him in a five-way tie for 10th, along with Aaron Judge. 

Mix in the fact that Martinez is playing more outfield time than most expected (and doing all of this through a sore left thumb), and the Sox have one heck of a find. Martinez isn’t going to light the world on fire in left field (or right). His range isn’t great, and he may one day be unable to get to a ball that costs the Sox dearly, at least for that day. 

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Nonetheless, Martinez has proven capable enough that the Red Sox aren't hesitating to play him in left field more and sit Jackie Bradley Jr. so that Mitch Moreland can get time at first base. Going into the year, Martinez told outfield coach Tom Goodwin to stay on top of him, and Goodwin’s made a point to do so.

“He runs good routes. He knows where to be,” Goodwin said Monday. “He knows where to throw the ball, which has been very impressive. He’s got a strong enough arm. He’s played right field his whole life.”

But is he better than Goodwin expected?

“I don’t know what I had — I had no expectations coming in,” Goodwin said. “I didn’t know him from anything. Just obviously what you’ve heard and what you’ve read about, you could go by that, and he’s better than those expectations . . . I expect him to be solid, and he’s been more than solid.”

That’s true all-around. Sounds like something worth talking about.

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Alex Cora's best game as Red Sox manager was a painful loss

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AP Photo

Alex Cora's best game as Red Sox manager was a painful loss

NEW YORK — On the night the Red Sox fell out of first place for the first time since March, on the night the Yankees stormed back and dealt the Sox a 9-6 loss in front of a hostile and sold-out crowd, Alex Cora managed his best game yet.

Before the Yankees teed off on the Sox bullpen, Cora turned to his bench in the seventh inning, earlier than most of his pinch-hit moves. Catcher Sandy Leon was pulled for Brock Holt. Holt didn’t reach, but that’s beside the point. A night after Cora oddly made no pinch-hit moves, Cora and Holt gave the Sox a better chance to start the inning with a runner.

That’s the whole idea: position the Sox as best possible. Calling on Craig Kimbrel in the eighth inning achieved that goal as well. On a nightly basis, the manager's job is predicated on process over result. Over a 162-game season, results will follow more often than not.

The closer became the flashpoint. Cora tabbed his best reliever when it mattered most: with runners on the corners, a 6-5 lead, and the top of the order coming up in the eighth inning after Matt Barnes got into trouble. But Kimbrel left his fastball over the plate and got hammered. Brett Gardner put the Yanks ahead by two with a triple, and Aaron Judge followed with a screaming line drive to center for a two-run homer, a quintessential frozen rope that went 117 mph off the bat.

The worst mistake the Red Sox — or their fans — could make after Wednesday is to believe the result invalidates the process. That Kimbrel, one of the greatest relievers anywhere, should not be asked to pitch in the eighth inning in the future because he didn’t get the job done this time. 

The Yankees are a scorching hot team. They have the best power-hitting team in the game. 

The best-laid plans can fall apart. But the Sox’ plan was right.

Kimbrel isn’t comfortable in the eighth inning, you say?

How is it that every other reliever in the bullpen can pitch in various innings, anywhere from the fifth through the eighth to extras, and still be expected to succeed, but not the quote-unquote closer? Do you really think Kimbrel looks up and sees the No. 8 on the scoreboard rather than the No. 9 and morphs into a pumpkin?

If you think highly of Kimbrel’s ability, you understand he's good because he has a 96-97 mph fastball and a wicked curve. If he can handle the pressure of the vaunted save situation in the ninth inning, don’t you think he can handle the pressure of a different inning with the game on the line?

“Not at all,” Kimbrel said when asked if he has to adjust to the eighth. “I’ve got to come in and get outs. It doesn’t matter if it’s the eighth or ninth inning, especially in situations like that. Like I said, I just didn’t do it.”

Kimbrel probably wouldn't admit discomfort, even if he felt some. But logic backs this one up: there’s a guy in the batter’s box. The job for the pitcher is to get him out. Every other reliever does that job in different innings. Kimbrel is better than every other reliever the Sox have.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the inning is something that actually affects Kimbrel. How great an effect could it be? To the point that someone else in the Sox ‘pen is better equipped than him, or is even close? 

Kimbrel is not standing on the mound, staring at the scoreboard, sobbing. He was ready for the eighth inning. He was notified ahead of time whom he would be brought in for, Brett Gardner, and he was not rushed. (He doesn’t take long to get warm anyway.) Cora was hoping that there would be no more than one runner on base, and two outs when Gardner came up.

Kimbrel isn’t comfortable with traffic, you say?

There is indeed little room for error with runners on base. Kimbrel is a strikeout pitcher. He always seeks strikeouts and probably does even moreso when there are runners on. Hitters are not as likely to expand as they are in the ninth inning.

“Especially with a runner on third, there’s definitely a smaller margin of error,” Kimbrel said Wednesday. “Right there, I didn’t want [Gardner] to put the ball in play. Trying to strike him out, and wasn’t able to do it.”

Perhaps this is an area Kimbrel can grow, not trying too hard to fan people. But he’s always been that way.

Again: he is the best option the Sox have with runners on. Or in any situation. His fastball does not drop to 88 mph or even 93 mph because someone is dancing off third base. He is not so mentally weak that he sees a runner on third base and cowers and forgets how to pitch.

If there’s a little adaptation to be had to pitching with runners on base, so be it. Ask the team’s greatest reliever to adapt a bit. Ask him to prove his excellence in a way that goes beyond that stockpile of 300 traditional saves. He’s not bouncing his curveball after 40 feet because there's, oh heavens, traffic.

You're OK with a lesser pitcher coming in with runners on base, but not the best one you have?

Kimbrel is too good to be locked behind tradition's door. He doesn't need to be coddled with clean innings. Cora knows that — the competitor in Kimbrel must know it as well — and neither the pitcher nor manager should forget it because of Wednesday’s result.

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