By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The impact of a manager’s decisions in a baseball game can sometimes be difficult to quantify.
Game 1 of the World Series was not one of those times.
In a 5-4 game in the bottom of the seventh inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Red Sox manager Alex Cora engaged in some high-stakes chess.
Cora, as he’s done for all of October, won big.
Roberts called upon right-hander Pedro Baez to pull off a seemingly impossible task: get through the meat of the Boston order without allowing the runner on second base — Andrew Benintendi — to score.
But Cora showed that he was willing to play tit-for-tat, replacing the right-handed Steve Pearce with the left-handed Mitch Moreland to face Baez. It was the right move by the numbers, but it didn’t pay off. Moreland struck out swinging at an eye-high fastball.
Roberts then called for an intentional walk to J.D. Martinez. Considering Martinez had already delivered a game-changing RBI double earlier in the game, that too felt like the proper move. Up stepped Xander Bogaerts, and just like Moreland before him, Bogaerts went down swinging at a fastball up and out of the zone.
So with two outs and with Baez throwing gas, Roberts had a choice: Keep Baez in the game to face Rafael Devers, or bring in lefty Alex Wood.
Roberts opted for the latter. Cora wasted no time in matching the move.
Cora sent Eduardo Nunez to the plate. It was somewhat of a surprise to see Cora keep Nunez out of the starting lineup against lefty Clayton Kershaw, but Devers ended up reaching base twice and delivering an RBI single to that point in the game. Now with a lefty reliever entering, though, Cora went to Nunez.
It paid off after just two pitches. Nunez belted a 1-0 curveball toward the Monster in left. The ball was hammered, and the only question was whether or not it would clear the wall.
It did. The ball left the ballpark, and with it went any hope the Dodgers might have had of stealing this game.
Roberts did all he could to navigate that seventh inning, but Cora simply had the right move in his back pocket to match it.
The moment was one that might overwhelm some managers — especially those in their first year ever doing the job. But Cora, clearly, is different. He relished the opportunity.
“Yeah I mean, I love it. I love it. It’s a challenge,” Cora said. “They’re going to mix and match. They’re going to pinch-hit, they’re going to bring their relievers. And you have to — and you know how I say I hate managing the other team, but actually you have to manage them and see who they have, and where they’re going to come in, and when it’s going to be the point that the matchup is going to benefit us.”
Part of what might make such situations so easy to manage is Cora’s general disposition. Despite all of the difficulties of being in the spotlight in Boston, Cora learned long ago how to handle it.
“No, I really don’t care if they second-guess me. I prepare. We prepare as a group, and you make decisions,” he said matter-of-factly. “And honestly when I’m done here, I shower, I get in that car, I might get a text that says, ‘Go to the pharmacy and get some diapers for the kids.’ … It’s a game, man. I enjoy it. I know that we’re in the spotlight here, managers. There’s a lot of shows now at night and they’re going to dissect every move.
“So I really don’t — I know it’s going to sound bad, but I really don’t care if they second-guess me.”
Second-guessing has not been an issue this postseason. The move to go to Nunez over Devers was just the latest in a trend of moves working out perfectly for Cora. This most recent move saw Nunez deliver the first pinch-hit home run in the World Series since 2009.
Reliever Matt Barnes said this is all not just a result of good luck.
“A.C. made a great call putting Nuney in. It seems like A.C. is making the right call all the time,” Barnes said. “I mean, the guy’s a phenomenal manager. We’ve seen it time and time again. I don’t think there’s any coincidence to it. The guy knows the game, he’s well-prepared, and he’s done a phenomenal job.”
Mookie Betts didn’t bat in that seventh inning that tilted the game for good, so he had a front-row seat to the managerial moves that led to the game-changing homer.
“I mean, A.C., he’s the man,” Betts said. “He knows what he needs to do. He puts us all in the right spots to succeed, now it’s just our time to go out and do it. He believes in us, he trusts in us, and you couldn’t ask for anything more from a manager.”
For his part, despite the results, Roberts expressed no regret for his decision to remove Baez from the game after his two dominating strikeouts.
“Devers is really good against the right-hander, and to get a guy off the bench in Nunez, I really liked Alex [Wood] in that spot. I did,” Roberts said. “Whether they were going to hit Devers with a [5-4] lead or go to the bench and go with Nunez, I still liked Alex in that spot.”
As it turned out, both managers like Wood in that spot. And though Nunez’s home run came with the Sox leading in the seventh, it was clearly the moment that the Dodgers’ hopes were decimated on this evening. On the other side, it was the moment the Red Sox knew they had this game won.
“Everybody’s excited, especially in a spot like that when you need a couple of more runs to feel comfortable,” Betts said of the dugout reaction to the three-run homer. “Against a team like that, one run, you may not feel that comfortable. But once we got it to four, we knew we could close out a game like that.”
“That’s a game-changer,” Barnes said. “It’s a dagger for Game 1. It was awesome to watch.”
Barnes was talking about the homer, because ultimately, the players are the ones who have to make the plays. But given how Cora seems to have the magic button at his disposal this October, his players are seemingly having just as much fun watching him run the team.
And while the mid-inning decisions clearly paid dividends, Cora’s managing of this situation started long before the game even began.
“When [Nunez] came in [to the clubhouse], probably he was a little bit disappointed that he didn’t start, because he’s been starting against every lefty,” Cora said. “But we felt Raphy was going to hang in there with Kershaw, and having [Nunez] on the bench, it was going to pay off. You’ve got to keep a righty. Pearce is playing, Ian [Kinsler] was playing. So keeping him in the dugout and out of the lineup was probably going to give us a chance to win the game.”
Benintendi, who kicked off that seventh inning with his fourth hit of the night, spoke to the manager’s preparation.
“He does a great job. I think it starts with the communication. He’ll let you know if there’s a possibility that you’ll go up to hit or if you’re going in to play defense, he’ll let you know,” Benintendi said. “He doesn’t catch you off guard and say, ‘Hey, you’re up.’ He’ll let you know early, and that does a lot for a player.”
It clearly did a lot for Nunez on this memorable night.
“It worked out,” Cora said. “He was prepared. He wasn’t upset, actually, that he wasn’t playing. I told him, ‘Be ready, man. You might have a big at-bat tonight and do your thing.’ And he did.”