Hackett: For next six weeks, most important member of Red Sox is Alex Cora

Jim Hackett
August 16, 2018 - 9:35 am

USA Today Sports

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With just over six weeks remaining in the season, the mighty Red Sox sit atop all of baseball with a gaudy 86-36 record and a 10-game division lead. Forty games remain and 40 percent of them come versus Cleveland, Houston and of course…the Yankees. It promises to be a continued fun ride to the postseason. The Red Sox will be playing baseball in October, but for how long may very well be determined over these next six weeks.

The competition is what it is. There are the likely foes referenced above for October and a bunch of also-rans. If you want to group the red-hot Oakland Athletics and even the Seattle Mariners with the contenders go ahead, but those teams are in a lesser tier, at least Seattle is. Every other American League team stinks. So given that, I'm not concerned with the chances of topping the 2001 Mariners' regular season record of 116 wins. Frankly, any number over 100 will do for me. Which leads me to my point: it's on Alex Cora to get this right.

Since day one of spring training, Cora has both preached and practiced the theme of giving players rest throughout the season to position them for success in October. It's a wise tactic, given how little had been left in their collective tank during the last two playoff runs under John Farrell. Cora has made this his mantra since his arrival and now is the time when it truly matters. With six weeks to play, it will be the art and science of rest, rhythm and momentum that matter most to the 2018 Red Sox. They've passed every other test to date and so has the manager. Now just one question remains -- will they be close to full octane come Oct. 1?

If the bullpen crumbles in the critical sixth, seventh, or eighth innings, then that's on Dave Dombrowski, who failed to fortify that one remaining hole at the trade deadline. Cora cannot fix what he doesn't have, and barring an August post-waiver upgrade, some combination of Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Ryan Brasier or maybe Tyler Thornburg is what you will see in those most crucial innings. Tryouts are unfolding before our eyes. You may see Eduardo Rodriguez or even David Price when it's late and close, or gasp, maybe even Drew Pomeranz. Don't rule any of that out as all hands will most assuredly be on deck.

If the starters fail or the bats of their most reliable and dependable stars suddenly go quiet, then that's on the players. However, before that Cora's hand on the lineup card will be the greatest determining factor. The balance of rest for his key players, while knowing when to ride the hot hands will be crucial. To date he's been great at it. Pulling Chris Sale after five brilliant innings last week was more evidence that Cora gets it. Of late, every decision he's made turns to gold (see Brock Holt's pinch hit game-winning homer on Tuesday night). However, as the roster is set to expand Sept. 1, this is where the rubber meets the road. It will be and needs to be all about October for the next month or so. With the way the Sox are playing and winning, anything less is insufficient and in many circles will be considered a failure.

There are ways to accomplish the need to rotate the rest pretty seamlessly. Integrate Blake Swihart into the lineup frequently, not only at catcher but also in utility positions he can handle. Then Cora can rest multiple starters and rotate accordingly. This will also help keep the much needed Sandy Leon fresh. If you've enjoyed what you've seen from the starting rotation of late then you need to acknowledge Leon, who is significantly impacting the staff.  Just ask Sale, Rick Porcello and Price.

When Ian Kinsler returns, Cora could use Holt more strategically, helping to spell guys like Xander Bogaerts, Eduardo Nunez, Rafael Devers and even Kinsler himself. More at-bats for Steve Pearce are merited and could help the cause as well. An overused Mitch Moreland tends to become barely above-average at the plate. When he plays four or five times per week, you get more production.

The roster is versatile where it matters. The lead the Sox have built is more than comfortable and the team has been playing otherworldly baseball for months. Unlike the last two years, the Red Sox have enough pieces to enter October well-rested, well-positioned and near fully fueled. This is when Cora can earn Manager of the Year honors. If not, it would be a damn shame because this team should win it all. Rest up boys and stay sharp. That should be Cora's mantra now, because that's how to get the job done.

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