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.”
I just asked Carson Smith if he could set record straight to what he meant in regards to being used a lot and told him how Cora was asked today on @DaleKeefeWEEI about whether he might be blaming Cora for overuse. He said he had “no comment.” added, “I’ve said what I need to say”— Christopher Smith (@SmittyOnMLB) May 16, 2018
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.”
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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.