By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Red Sox manager Alex Cora entered the 2018 season a confident man, not expecting much difficulty as he transitioned from former bench coach to head honcho.
It only took seven innings for that thought process to derail.
Cora probably felt pretty good taking his first seventh inning stretch as a big league manager. His team was up 4-0 against the Tampa Bay Rays, affording him the opportunity to pull Chris Sale after just 92 pitches. It fit right in line with Boston’s goal of preserving their ace as much as possible during the regular season, hoping he would still be his dominant self once September and October roll around. Matt Barnes set the Rays down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the seventh, and Cora was only six outs away from his first victory as a manager.
Then came the bottom of the eighth, a disaster of an inning where Joe Kelly and Carson Smith couldn’t find the strike zone. The duo turned Boston’s 4-0 lead into a 6-4 deficit in gut-wrenching fashion, washing away all the happy thoughts that emanated from the two hours prior. It brought back the cold, shuttering feeling of Opening Day 2003 when Theo Epstein’s closer-by-committee failed miserably. It also exposed a potential issue for the World Series hopefuls: Who the heck is going to pitch the eighth inning?
The easy answer is Barnes, who has some experience as a bridge to flamethrower Craig Kimbrel. His 2018 debut looked effortless, needing just 13 pitches to set Tampa down in order. But even he is susceptible to pulling a Kelly/Smith, making this quite the conundrum for Boston’s new skipper.
Maybe Kelly can find the strike zone next time out, or Smith can regain his form from Seattle a few years ago. If not, Cora has other options, but they all come with question marks (as most relievers do). Can he feel confident in veteran Heath Hembree, who notched a career-high 14 holds last season? Maybe the answer will eventually be Tyler Thornburg, who thrived in the set-up role in Milwaukee but has yet to throw a pitch for the Red Sox. He’s still on the DL to start his second season in Boston, leading way to lefty Bobby Poyner and righty Marcus Walden making a big league roster for their first time ever.
These are the kinds of situations that managers find themselves in during the opening weeks of a season, as they figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s something Cora and Dave Dombrowski will be wracking their brains over for much of the near future. If the late-inning struggles persist, Dombrowski may find himself dealing for his third set-up man in three years.
Thursday’s meltdown could turn into the typical one of 162 overreaction, and it could be extinguished as early as Friday if the Boston bullpen twirls some solid innings in game two of 162. The set-up-man-by-committee approach may work eventually, and the Opening Day debacle will be a mere afterthought. Or it won’t, and it could become a fatal flaw for the 2018 Red Sox.