When he arrived at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, Chris Sale came through the clubhouse door, saw Alex Cora and uttered four words: “I want the ball.”
Cora laughed. Sale is arguably the best pitcher in the AL, certainly on the Mount Rushmore of active pitchers, and had the Red Sox not won Game 4, Sale was set to start the fifth and deciding game. He was signaling to Cora that if he wanted him for an inning in relief, Sale was ready. Pitchers notoriously ask for the ball, and Sale doing so after a season in which he twice went on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue might’ve been a red flag had Cora not spent the season getting to know Sale, his desires, his life, his family, and earning his faith enough that Sale knew better than to lie about his fitness to pitch.
A year ago to the day, Sale had pitched in relief, too. It was Game 4 of the Red Sox’s Division Series against the Houston Astros. When he entered in the fourth inning, Boston trailed by a run. Then the Red Sox took a one-run lead. Sale was cruising until the eighth inning, when Alex Bregman tied the game with a leadoff home run. Houston went ahead when Sale left with a runner on base and closer Craig Kimbrel allowed him to score. The game still haunts Sale.
“I try to learn from every experience and learn, obviously, from my mistakes,” he said. “My first go at it was godawful. It was as bad as it can get. And I think going through that made me better for this situation here and hopefully going forward. I look a lot at what happened the first time around and obviously trying to flip the script, and here we are.”
Here they were, eighth inning this time, Red Sox leading the Yankees, 4-1. They had scratched across three runs against veteran starter CC Sabathia and scored another on a home run from catcher Christian Vázquez, another Cora sleight of hand in a series full of them. Vázquez, a Puerto Rico native who also went on the Caguas relief trip, hadn’t played in the postseason. He hadn’t caught Porcello, the Game 4 starter, all year. Cora sought the platoon advantage with the right-handed Vázquez against the left-handed Sabathia. He was rewarded.
Sale had gone to the bullpen three innings earlier, had warmed up in the seventh, and with Boston’s thin relief corps its greatest weakness, Cora wasn’t leaving it up to chance.
“Hey,” Cora said he shouted to the dugout, “we’re all in. He’s coming in.”
The Red Sox’s dugout stirred. The bullpen door swung open. Sale, all 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds of him, all skin and bones and left arm, was jogging to the mound.
“We’re about to win,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “That’s what it was.”
As Sale shut down the Yankees to propel Boston to the ninth, it felt, to the Red Sox, like the culmination of something. Like the 162 games that brought them to that moment weren’t simply a talented team playing out the string. They meant something. They fortified this group. They showed that what Cora had done gave him the capital to bring Chris Sale in and not get sideways looks or second guesses but something more representative of the unmitigated optimism that’s his calling card. The Red Sox trusted him just as he trusts them.
Veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler trusted Cora to play Brock Holt in Game 3, and Holt responded with the first cycle in playoff history and the Red Sox handed the Yankees their worst postseason loss in the nearly 400 games they’ve played. Porcello trusted Cora when he called his number out of the bullpen in Game 1, and then when they agreed that he should push back his start from Game 3 to 4. And Nathan Eovaldi trusted Cora when he asked to move his scheduled start up a day and shut down the Yankees in the third game.
“We all have an understanding that we’re all here to do what it takes to win a championship,” Kinsler said. “That’s really what it comes down to. There are no egos in here. There’s no ‘I did it’ or ‘I’m mad because someone else did it.’ Alex doesn’t care who gets it done. And we all trust each other. We all believe in each other. We’re all here to win a championship. It’s pretty easy when everybody’s pulling in the same direction.”
For six months in the season, and six weeks in spring training, and the three months before that when he was going to Texas and Florida and all over the place to meet face-to-face with his players, Alex Cora was laying the groundwork for Game 4. He had earned it. It was going to be Rick Porcello and Chris Sale coming together to help him this time. And the rewards were going to be awfully handsome.
Then came the ninth inning. Baseball is funny like that. Alex Cora had managed a spotless series, and Sale’s clean frame set him up the ideal scenario: Craig Kimbrel for three outs. Past playoff foibles aside, Cora wanted Kimbrel because he’s one of the most dominant closers in history, and a three-run cushion felt like plenty until it didn’t.
Walk. Single. Strikeout. Walk. Hit by pitch. It was 4-2. Sacrifice fly on a ball with the bases loaded that landed 7 feet shy of the left-field fence. It was 4-3. Kimbrel teetered. Cora got up Joe Kelly in the bullpen, just in case, the sort of thing Cora’s counterpart, Aaron Boone, hadn’t done for two consecutive days. In the Game 3 blowout, leaving in starter Luis Severino for too long helped contribute to the historic loss. On Tuesday, Boone stuck with starter CC Sabathia for three innings in which he allowed Boston to tag him for three runs before Vazquez’s home run.
Truth is, Kimbrel wasn’t going anywhere. This was his game. He gathered himself, induced a weak ground ball from rookie Gleyber Torres, watched third baseman Eduardo Núñez field it and throw on the run, leaned with everyone else as first baseman Steve Pearce barely kept his toe on the base for the final out, sweated a replay review and then started to celebrate. It was an ugly save. It was closer to an abject meltdown. Cora stuck with Kimbrel anyway.
“He knows his players very, very well,” Kinsler said. “He knows them inside and out. And he trusts his players. There’s trust and respect. Those are two things that are huge when it comes to sports. He doesn’t handcuff anybody. He believes in his guys, and it shows. Guys love playing for him.”
At 12:09 a.m., barely a half-hour after they’d clinched their spot in the ALCS against the Houston Astros – with whom Cora won the World Series last year as bench coach – the stereo in the clubhouse turned from triumphant hip-hop tracks to an old-school jam. Sly smiles spread across the faces of those in the know as the first words strained across the speakers: “Start spreadin’ the news … ”
As he left Fenway Park following the Yankees’ victory in Game 2, outfielder Aaron Judge carried a boombox playing “New York, New York.” Now Boston was engaging in a delicious bit of counter-trolling, playing the Yankees’ victory song during a Red Sox celebration. The rivalry is alive and well, from the players to the managers to the fan bases, each more invigorated than they’ve been in years.
In Boston, particularly, they fell in love with this Red Sox team over the summer. It’s not one without weaknesses. The Astros may be favored in the ALCS, even if Boston gets home-field advantage with Game 1 on Saturday. They’re beloved because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. How much of that is directly attributable to Alex Cora is impossible to quantify, and yet the fashion in which he out-managed Boone in the Division Series is likewise impossible to deny.
On they go, to a place Sale has never been, a place where Porcello last went with Detroit in 2013, when the Tigers lost to the last Red Sox championship team. Four wins there, and it’s the World Series. Four wins there, and it’s a parade. And in the lead duck boat would be Alex Cora, the impactful manager in an era where managers don’t have nearly the same impact, the person in whom the Red Sox trusted because he trusts them, too.
“From top to bottom,” Sale said, “we’re as good as it gets.”
Especially at the top.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• After UFC brawl, Khabib’s dad promises punishment
• Umpire has an even worse night than Yankees
• Saints’ Kamara makes statement with clothing
• Brees becomes NFL’s all-time passing yardage king