BOSTON â Joe Kelly was struggling at the end of the regular season, so one day Red Sox Manager Alex Cora called him into his office for a chat. Cora told Kelly, the Red Soxâ hard-throwing relief pitcher, that he had seen some things that could be fixed.
Kelly was impressed that Cora had spent the time looking at video and breaking it down for him. But the technical aspect of their conversation was only part of it. According to Kelly, Cora gave him a brief and straightforward motivational speech about how important he was to the teamâs success, just like everyone else on the roster.
âItâs one of those things where he didnât jump ship, which is awesome to see,â Kelly said after pitching a scoreless inning Wednesday in Bostonâs Game 2 victory in the World Series. âAnd he told me personally, he said, âHey, for us to be successful, we need to get you right.â And he took time and effort out of his day to try to do that.â
Cora and the Red Sox decision makers have had a terrific year, particularly in October, with most of their tactics paying off handsomely. The Red Sox have won 9 of 11 postseason games, and almost everything Cora has done has seemed to work out, in part because the players appreciate their managerâs approach.
His conversation with Kelly is typical of the direct discussions that Cora, who played 14 years in the majors, has with players, discussions that are rarely easy.
When infielder Eduardo Nunez arrived at Fenway Park on Tuesday for Game 1, he quickly learned that he would not be starting, and he was disappointed. But before there was any time to stew, a talk with Cora made him feel better.
âHe explained the situation,â Nunez said.
Cora told Nunez that he wanted him to come off the bench in a key situation later in the game, and sure enough, Nunez hit a pinch-hit, three-run homer that helped the Red Sox win that game.
But every time a player is inserted into the starting lineup, another has to come out. Every time a pinch-hitter goes to the plate, another proud batter stays on the bench. For Cora and the Red Sox, a critical part of their success is that the players have not grumbled, at least not publicly.
âAlex makes moves, and whatever he says goes,â said Steve Pearce, who platoons at first base with Mitch Moreland. âIf he wants me to hit, Iâll hit. If he doesnât, I wonât. Iâll give it back to Mitch and root him on. Thatâs how we do it.â
Through the postseason, Coraâs maneuvering has had an almost uncanny success rate.
âWe chuckle about it sometimes,â said Ron Roenicke, the Red Sox bench coach. âYou get on that roll and you hope it continues. But itâs not just that it goes right. The players know it goes right, and when the players know it goes right, it gives them more confidence when they come to those situations.â
In Game 3 of Bostonâs American League division series against the Yankees, Brock Holt was sensational. He hit for the cycle â a home run, a triple, a double and a single â and drove in five runs in Bostonâs 16-1 win. But even though Holt was sizzling hot, Cora sat him for Game 4.
Holt was all smiles on the bench, cheering when his replacement, Ian Kinsler, hit a run-scoring double. Boston won again. He also pointed to a conversation with Cora that had helped him accept a part-time role.
âIâd like to play as much as possible, but I get to play for the Boston Red Sox,â Holt said. âItâs one of those things from early on, A. C. told me, âHey, youâre going to be a big part of this team, but youâre not going to play every day.â Itâs about understanding your role and leaving your ego at the door.â
Roenicke, who managed the Milwaukee Brewers from 2011 to 2015, said Coraâs communication style is the key. Cora informs the players quickly and directly about decisions, and they respect that, whether the information is pleasant or not.
When Cora told pitcher David Price that he would be starting Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox were still on the field at Yankee Stadium, celebrating their division series win.
âIt makes those guys feel better about whatâs going on,â Roenicke said. âThey know that theyâre involved with everything and there arenât any secrets. You guys see it. There is a good vibe down here.â
Players often roll their eyes at long speeches, so Coraâs straightforward style is appreciated. After Boston beat the Yankees, Cora went into the clubhouse for his congratulatory speech before the players unleashed their showers of Champagne. Coraâs oratory was limited to little more than a dozen words: âWeâre a good team, and you know it. We have the Astros next. Letâs go.â The players roared.
Coraâs communication skills could be tested as the World Series shifts to Los Angeles this weekend, because he will have to make a difficult choice. Unable to use a designated hitter in the National League park, Cora will have to remove a regular from the starting lineup to keep J. D. Martinez, the D.H., in it.
Someone will receive news he does not want to hear, but most likely he will hear it directly from Cora, and he will probably also be told to stay ready to help.
âItâs not easy,â Cora said. âItâs always cool to give guys good news. But itâs always tough to give guys bad news. And throughout the season, you have to do that, and thatâs the tough part. But we have a job to do as an organization, and you have to make moves that you feel that are going to benefit what weâre trying to accomplish.â