Red Sox winning after Alex Cora shaves beard

One of the enduring beauties of baseball remains the long season, and how quickly and how much things can change. And how, above all, a bad start, or even a bad half-season, doesn’t mean a team can’t play its way out of things. We always talk about how there’s no clock in baseball (until a pitch clock comes along, anyway). But there is always time to get things right.

The last World Series champ, the Braves, were 44-45 last summer, hadn’t spent a day over .500 at that point. Three years ago, the Nationals were 19-31 after 50 games, ended up winning at all.

This season, the Braves started out slowly. Here they come, nine wins in a row through Friday night. The Phillies seemed lost a couple of weeks ago, but through Friday night had gone 8-0 under new manager, Rob Thomson, a terrific baseball lifer finally getting his chance.

Then, there are the 2022 Red Sox.

They were 10-19 a month ago — and 14-22 after losing, 13-4, to Houston on May 17 this after coming within two games of making it back to the World Series last October. They still didn’t have Chris Sale, didn’t have a closer, kept blowing one save after another, weren’t hitting — at least not the way everybody expected them to with Raffy Devers and J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts in the middle of the order and having brought in Trevor Story to back all of them up.

A quarter of the way through this season, it suddenly felt as if the way the Red Sox closed last season — all the way until they were 2-1 up against the Astros in the American League Championship Series, almost hadn’t happened at all.

But it was happening at the beginning of the long season. Happening under a manager, Alex Cora, who knows how to play the long game and who knows how to hold together a team in trouble, even early. Last season, there was an 0-3 start at home against the Orioles, before the Sox got hot. The Red Sox got out of that hole. This season, they dug a bigger one, well past April.

Now after starting 10-19, they went 21-9 through Friday night’s 4-3 victory over Seattle. They only lost one game on their current West Coast trip through Oakland and Anaheim and finally into Seattle, the only defeat coming when they got Shohei Ohtani-ed in Anaheim on Thursday night.

They have taken some big punches so far. They got hit again when it was announced that Garrett Whitlock, the talented young right-hander who has both started and relieved for Cora, will be out a couple of weeks. The Sox still look as if they have a season now, and the chance to make some noise the rest of the way.

They came out of Friday still in fourth place in the AL East — which might very well send four teams into October this season — and still 11 1/2 behind the Yankees. And none of this happens in a vacuum. Instead, it happens in the new baseball world of a third Wild Card, which happens to belong to the Red Sox right now.

The only thing Cora seems to have worried about so far is his own beard. He shaved it off when his team was 10-19. After Friday, their record stood at 31-28, and next week the Red Sox are heading home to Fenway for a nine-game homestand that includes six games against the A’s and the Tigers.

Dave O’Brien, the fine NESN play-by-play man for the Red Sox, has watched the whole show from Cora since he became manager in 2018. It means he has seen the team both with Cora and without him, when Cora was serving out his one-year suspension because of his role as a bench coach in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.

“The guy doesn’t miss a thing,” O’Brien said. “No detail goes unseen. The best guy in the dugout when it comes to a pitcher tipping [his pitches], hands down. His guys love him. Love him. A blend of analytics and gut — and he really lets his coaches coach. Like Jason Varitek, who is invaluable on stuff like an opposing hitter’s swing path looking different than the analytics reports might infer. Tek sees it, and he and Cora make that adjustment in game.

“And Alex is, as you know, amazing with the bullpen. All that stuff is why he might be the best October manager in the game, if he can get his team there.”

Here were the bullpen guys who finally won the game for the Sox once Rich Hill left in the fifth, allowing the Mariners just one run the rest of the way: John Schreiber, Jake Diekman, Hansel Robles, Matt Strahm, finally a hard-throwing kid named Tanner Houck, who might be throwing himself right into the role of Cora’s closer.

And it isn’t just the relievers. In the Angels series, the Sox got two 1-0 shutout wins, one a complete game from Michael Wacha. The last time the Sox had two 1-0 wins in a single series was 16 years ago.

Cora: “Little by little, we started to feel good about ourselves.”

Long way to go, of course. Still a mile and a half behind the Yankees. But this is baseball. Still time. The manager kept preaching patience. He was right, as usual. Except about that beard. Fear the beard.

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