Cora-nation! Rookie manager leads Red Sox to championship

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hard to believe now, all these wins later, but the Alex Cora Era in Boston began with a loss. A brutal one, in fact.

Opening day at Tropicana Field in late March, none of his late moves worked out as the bullpen blew a big lead in a 6-4 setback.

No fan in New England would admit it now — still, chances are some had already started to wonder whether he was the right guy for the Red Sox.

“It’s baseball,” Cora reassured that afternoon. “We know it’s going to happen. … I guess get it out of the way right away.”

Yep, guess so.

A calming presence in a boiling sports cauldron, Cora capped off one of the greatest runs by a first-year skipper in leading Boston to the World Series championship.

His Cora-nation came Sunday night, when the Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in Game 5.

The victory set off celebrations all over.

While throngs of Red Sox fans chanted “Cor-a! Cor-a!” from the seats and so many more reveled across the country, all of Puerto Rico certainly cheered its native son from Caguas.

Cora became the first manager from the island to guide a team to a championship. It came more than a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico — when Cora negotiated his contract last October, he asked the Red Sox to help his people with relief efforts, and the team eagerly pitched in.

Moments after hoisting the championship trophy, Cora made one more request.

“Next thing I’m going to ask ownership is if we can take the trophy to my island,” he said. “That would be great.”

Cora again turned Dodger Stadium into his personal party room. A year ago, he celebrated at the park as Houston’s bench coach after the Astros beat Los Angeles in Game 7. This time, he was front and center when Boston hoisted the shiny gold trophy.

Cora became the fifth manager to win the crown in his first season, joining Bob Brenly (Arizona, 2001), Ralph Houk (Yankees, 1961), Eddie Dyer (Cardinals, 1946) and Bucky Harris (Washington Senators, 1924).

Called A.C. by his players, Cora has an unassuming presence. He often wears a gray hoodie in the dugout and doesn’t raise his voice — except to yell at umpires.

Shouting at his own team?

“No, no, I don’t,” he said before Game 5. “I talk to them and I try to stay in tune with them. If I have something to tell them, I just sit with them. Very casual. Very casual.”

“I try to do it that way. It feels right. It feels right,” he said. “I never had a manager that was like rah, rah, screaming at guys. They always had good conversations, and I learned from them and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

His dugout demeanor is boosted by a combination of analytical aptitude and people approach.

“Coralytics” is what it’s called by his agent, Scott Boras.

Cora was hired after John Farrell, who led the Red Sox to the 2013 title, was fired following two straight early exits in the AL playoffs.

“Alex was the manager that fit for us. He was really good in so many ways,” Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said before Game 5. “He knew Boston. I think he excels in dealing with the media, which in Boston is a bigger job than some other places. It can be cumbersome for a lot of people, and I’m not saying it’s not for him at times, but it’s part of the process and he handles it easily.”

Cora was chosen over about a half-dozen candidates that included former managers Brad Ausmus and Ron Gardenhire.

“It was a clear-cut choice that he was our guy,” Dombrowski said.

After the opening loss, Boston won 17 of its next 18 games and was on its way.

Cora steered the Red Sox to a team-record 108 wins in the regular season, then Boston topped the 100-win Yankees and Astros in the playoffs. Along the way, it seemed Cora could do no wrong.

Brock Holt it for the first postseason cycle when Cora gave him his only start of the Division Series against New York. Cora masterfully managed a bullpen that many questioned before October, then avoided burning it out by leaning on hard-throwing starter Nathan Eovaldi in key spots. And Cora helped coax a breakout postseason from World Series Game 5 winner David Price.

“A.C. told us from the first day in spring training we could do it,” AL MVP favorite Mookie Betts said. “We believed in ourselves, we believed in him and we went out and executed.”

The clinching win at Houston came on the day Cora turned 43, and his players sang happy birthday to him in the clubhouse.

“More than anything, he’s just brought consistency,” ace Chris Sale recently said. “He’s the same guy in the first inning as he is in the ninth inning of a 10-1 ballgame or 3-3 ballgame. I think that’s the overall thing as players that we take from him.

“Ninth inning, bases loaded, one out of a one-run ballgame, and he’s sitting there eating seeds, doing the same thing as a 10-1 ballgame in the fourth inning. And I think that goes very well with us as players, when if he’s not panicking, why should we?” Sale said.

Cora grew up playing ball with his older brother, Joey, a former big league infielder. Alex spent 14 years in the majors, batting .243 as an infielder with six teams.

He got to the plate one time in Boston’s sweep of the 2007 World Series, putting down a sacrifice bunt for a team led by David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Manny Ramirez.

“Offensively, we did a lot of good things. And then the bench, it was amazing, they had the best utility guy in the bigs in 2007,” Cora said with a playful grin Sunday. “That guy was great.”

With the season over, Cora can enjoy spending more time with his twin 15-month-old boys. Free from any criticism that comes with such a high-pressure job, too, although he doesn’t stress over it.

“I really don’t care if they second-guess me. I prepare. We prepare as a group, and you make decisions,” he said after Game 1. “And honestly when I’m done here, I shower, I get in that car, I might get a text and say, “Go to the pharmacy and get some diapers for the kids.”

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Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”