Bradford: Why Alex Cora's message to Eduardo Rodriguez meant so much

Rob Bradford
March 05, 2019 - 7:01 am

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- It could have been another feel-good, innocuous, early-spring training start for Eduardo Rodriguez.

The lefty had pitched fairly well, displaying his improved slider while showing some athleticism in gathering up Tim Tebow's slow-roller. (And, by the way, "gathering up Tim Tebow's slow-roller" were words I never thought I would be writing.)

Two innings, no runs, three hits, two strikeouts, no walks. Other than having to throw another few pitches down in the bullpen Rodriguez seemed content with his outing against Mets. Sure. Just another day closer to the games that really matter.

But as it turned out this one mattered more than we thought. This was the moment Alex Cora was going to zig when we had been zagging for the last three weeks. The Red Sox' Good Times Express was going to be delayed.

"There were two at-bats there, the one against (Amed) Rosario and the Dominic Smith one, there were two outs, Rosario, he got ahead right away and then it became a long at-bat, then Smith with two outs, a lefty, he falls behind on 3-0 count. For him to go deeper into games, he needs to attack guys," Cora said of Rodriguez. "His stuff was good, he got some swings and misses but those are things we need to get better and he knows it."

The manager continued, "He needs to get better. The stuff is really good, we saw it, threw a slider to (Michael) Conforto, struck him out, swing and miss, good change-ups but we have to be more efficient."

To put Cora's pointed commentary in context, perhaps no player in camp has been praised by the manager more than Rodriguez. And for good reason. He came to camp in (realistically) the best shape of his life and has suggested the postseason maturation process is ready to springboard the pitcher to another level.

But this was more than just one pitcher and a few ill-advised pitch selections. This was Cora offering a dose of reality to his well-meaning bunch. This whole repeating thing isn't going to be as easy has it has seemed so far.

The Red Sox need Rodriguez. The Red Sox also need to understand they are going to need occasional wake-up calls like this. Consider this the first alarm.

Cora knows what a big swing Rodriguez can be for this group. Sure, he certainly left a positive impression with what he did in Game 4 of the World Series. But it was the remembrance of those three starts in July when he didn't allow a single run in 17 innings before hurting his ankle that should make this 25-year-old a priority. The starting staff should be the difference-maker for this team and Rodriguez is a potentially true separator.

So with all of this in mind, it seemed like an appropriate moment to not just load back up on the bus and head down to West Palm Beach. That would have been easy. Long ride. Long day. Say a few nice things and then move on to another early March baseball game.

Cora, however, understands the little things that can potentially derail this thing, and Rodriguez continuing to fall into the trap of calling it a day after 18 outs has to stop. (He only pitched into the seventh inning twice in 2018.) There are other elements of the equation that the manager has and will highlight. Last year he wasn't shy about calling out the team's baserunning, for instance. He picked his spots last year. And just because there will be World Series rings delivered next month that doesn't mean there won't continue to be moments of uneasiness.

He knows Rodriguez can take it. Go back to June of last season and you will see similar criticism coming from manager to player. A guy like Rafael Devers? That might be different. All we heard on the way to 24 errors was how this kid could be an elite defender. And in the end Cora got what he needed from each player when it counted the most.

So while you might think this was just another easy-breezy spring training tune-up, remember the moment. Good intentions will only go so far when you're staring down at the Yankees, Astros and the like. And that is what Cora might have well been screaming before heading down I-95 Monday afternoon.