HOUSTON – Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was already counting on a rematch with his former team even before the Houston Astros advanced to their fifth straight AL Championship Series.
“He told me (Monday), ‘see you soon,’” Houston star Carlos Correa said.
The Astros assured their place the next day, closing out the White Sox i Game 4 of the Division Series.
Now that this matchup is set and will begin Friday night, Cora, the former Houston bench coach, will look to take down the Astros in the ALCS for the second time in four years after beating them to a World Series title in 2018.
“I’m enjoying the groove,” Cora said. “I think honestly, as a team, we’re clicking at the right time ... and it doesn’t matter how you get here, it just matters what you do from here on and we’re prepared for it.”
The red-hot Red Sox beat the Yankees in the wild-card game and earned a trip to Houston by upsetting the 100-win Rays 3-1 in a wild division series, featuring a 13-inning win in Game 3 and a walk-off victory in Game 4.
Cora helped Houston win the 2017 World Series as bench coach, then managed Boston to the 2018 championship after disposing of the Astros. He was let go by the Red Sox following Major League Baseball’s investigation into Houston’s sign-stealing scheme, then suspended by MLB through the 2020 postseason before getting rehired in Boston last November.
Asked about the reception the Astros might get from the crowd when the series shifts to Boston for Game 3 on Monday, Cora admitted that it feels weird when they’re heckled since he was involved with the cheating. He doesn’t feel like the scandal is in the past because he lives with it every day.
“I’m sorry, I made a mistake and I’m living it,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable because I know that when they get booed or they scream at them, I’m there. I was part of it.”
The Astros are the third team in MLB history to reach the league championship series in five consecutive seasons, joining the Braves (1995-99) and Athletics (1971-75). Houston manager Dusty Baker has only been around for these last two. He took over after manager A.J. Hinch was fired after being suspended for his part in the scheme.
But he's certainly been around long enough to know he has a team built for October.
“These guys take a lot of pride in winning, and especially the guys that have been here for a while,” Baker said. “They’ve been through a couple of back-to-back 100-loss seasons, and they like the feeling of winning and the feeling of being on top. And they think that they’re supposed to win no matter how the series starts or the outcome.”
The biggest question of the series is the status of Houston ace Lance McCullers Jr. The right-hander was masterful in a Game 1 win in the ALDS, pitching scoreless ball into the seventh. But he left Game 4 after four innings with tightness in his right forearm and was still being evaluated Thursday as the Astros determine his availability for the series.
“He did go for an MRI, just precautionary to make sure everything’s OK in there,” general manager James Click said. “So, we’re waiting for those images to be reviewed and getting examination on him, and we’ll see where that goes.”
A lot of people will weigh in on the decision but Click said it will be “just ultimately about how Lance feels.”
With McCullers out, the Astros will start Framber Valdez in Game 1 against Chris Sale. Game 2 in Houston Saturday features Astros rookie Luis García against Nathan Eovaldi.
There was some question about how Sale would be used in this series after the seven-time All-Star permitted five runs in just one inning of a Game 2 start in the division series. It was his 10th outing this year after returning from Tommy John surgery Aug. 14.
Cora said they don’t consider Sale an opener in this game and that there would be no limitations on the left-hander.
“If we didn’t feel comfortable, we wouldn’t pitch him,” Cora said.
But what made Cora feel good about putting Sale back on the mound in such a big game after his recent struggles?
“It’s Chris Sale,” Cora said. “He’s a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Sale, who was also bad in his last regular season start, said he felt “lesser than dirt” after Game 2. But the support of Cora and his teammates helped get him in the right mindset to bounce back Friday.
He said he’s been on the mound every day since his last start trying to iron some things out. He believes he’s rediscovered a changeup that was missing against the Rays and that he’s solved the problems commanding his fastball.
“We’ll see what we get (Friday),” he said. “But I like where we’re at.”
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