One Rookie Skipper Out-Generals the Other

Two rookie managers in every sense of the word. Including that neither had ever managed a day in the majors, though maybe one of them might have taken the bridge for a single day in special circumstances. And when umpire Mike Winters gave the signal that the final out of the American League division series war between the Red Sox and the Yankees would stand on review, with the Red Sox going forth to meet the Astros in the American League Championship Series, rookie Red Sox manager Alex Cora looked like the second coming of Casey Stengel and rookie Yankee manager Aaron Boone looked like the second coming of Grady Little.

Boone should have had it made, even if his Yankees finished second to the Red Sox in an American League East that really belonged to those clubs and nobody else all year long. They won 100 games and finished second in the division. They flattened the upstart Athletics in the wild card game. They split with the Red Sox to open the division series in Fenway Park and had every reasonable chance of not letting the set get back to Boston in the first place.

Until they started playing Game 3, that is. All of a sudden that vaunted Yankee power took an early winter vacation. And the arguable best bullpen in the American League this year — their collective 9.7 wins above replacement level and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings overwhelmed the rest of the league — wasn't a topic in Games 3 and 4 until it was way too late, as in Game 3's 16-1 Red Sox blowout, or not soon enough, as in Game 4's 4-3 Red Sox win that was close enough to not.

Even the least knowledgeable fan knew the Yankees' Game 3 starter Luis Severino didn't have his A-game. He barely had his C+ game. Yet Boone left him in with a 3-0 deficit until the Red Sox loaded the bases on him in the top of the fourth. And he brought in Lance Lynn, a right-hander who hasn't been as good this year as he'd been in seasons past, instead of Chad Green, who'd been a more reliable option when brought in during a testy inning. Lynn looked so discomfited that he stumbled before walking Mookie Betts on four pitches, after which left-handed Andrew Benitendi ripped a 3-run double to launch the demolition in earnest. And Green relieving Lynn turned out to have a shaky outing of his own.

The Game 3 carnage got bad enough that Boone didn't dare reach for and burn his best bullpen bulls. But in Game 4, once again Boone's starter, veteran CC Sabathia, barely had his C+ game. Sabathia pitched in and out of trouble in the first two innings and entered the third with a line of right-handed Red Sox due up just waiting to see if he'd keep leaving fat pitches over the plate.

He did. In a win-or-be-gone game, Boone didn't even think about getting any of his best bulls up and throwing until David Robertson began loosening up after Xander Bogaerts grounded out back to the box. The problem was that Sabathia plunked Benitendi to lead off, before Steve Pearce ripped a single up the pipe and J.D. Martinez sent Benitendi home with a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 Red Sox lead. And after Bogaerts's ground out Ian Kinsler sent an RBI double over Yankee left fielder Brett Gardner's head and Eduardo Nunez floated an RBI single over Yankee third baseman Neil Walker's head.

Sabathia finally got Jackie Bradley, Jr. to ground out for the side, but those two RBI hits over Yankee heads proved a metaphor for Boone's position in this series. Indeed, Boone's next move was to bring in a reliever to open the fourth — left-hander Zach Britton. The same Zach Britton upon whom Orioles manager Buck Showalter failed to call in the 2016 wild card game, when Britton was Showalter's lights-out closer, in the bottom of the eleventh with Edwin Encarnacion coming up to hit. Leaving Ubaldo Jimenez in to serve up the 3-run homer neither Toronto nor Baltimore will soon forget.

But now Britton wasn't quite his former self after fighting injuries since that game. And his first batter was another Red Sox right-handed hitter, catcher Christian Vasquez. And with Britton's sinkerball doing anything much except sinking, Vasquez snuck one the other way over the right field fence. The Yankees would score only one run, in the fifth off Boston starter Rick Porcello, until Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel was thatclose to melting down in the ninth, letting the score close to 4-3, before Gleyber Torres's four-hop dead fish to third turned into the close out at first that required a challenge from Boone but was upheld on review for the game.

Meanwhile, Cora out-generaled Boone at nearly every point especially when the set came to the Bronx. He sat Kinsler in favor of Brock Holt for Game 3 — and Holt became baseball's first to hit for the cycle in a postseason contest. He re-inserted Kinsler for Game 4 and got a key RBI double for it. He installed Vasquez behind the plate despite Vasquez's not having worked with Porcello all season long — and Vasquez hit his first home run since 26 June for what proved the game-winner.

And, maneuvering adroitly around his own suspect bullpen, Cora got a tight inning each out of Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier before surprising everyone in the house by bringing Chris Sale, his best starting pitcher, out to work a spotless Game 4 eighth.

Last year's bench coach for the World Series-winning Astros, Cora attacked the division series as aggressively as Boone proved passive. All season long, he held to the precept of his hitters attacking early and often and his pitchers flooding the plate with strikes. Having the roster well capable of executing such a plan sure helped, but Cora led the Red Sox to baseball's best regular season record and conquered the Yankees by out-thinking them while his team performed accordingly.

From the moment Cora invited two of his pitchers, Sale and Porcello, to join him in a visit to Cora's hurricane-ravaged home turf of Puerto Rico last winter, his Red Sox had a sense that this wasn't quite an ordinary manager, even if they knew he was only six years older than Kinsler coming in. "For somebody who's managing in his first year, it sure doesn't feel like it," Porcello told Yahoo! Sports's Jeff Passan. "He seems like he's been doing this for a long, long time. What we feel in this clubhouse is how much he really, truly, genuinely cares about us."

"There are no egos in here. There's no 'I did it' or 'I'm mad because someone else did it.' Alex doesn't care who gets it done," said Kinsler. "And we all trust each other. We all believe in each other. We're all here to win a championship. It's pretty easy when everybody's pulling in the same direction."

As a player, Cora's most memorable moment was an eighteen-pitch at-bat against the Cubs in 2004, in which he fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch until he finally hit a two-run homer. Boone's was a lot more world-changing: he'd smashed the game, set, and pennant-winning leadoff bomb off Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to win the 2003 ALCS for the Yankees. And, like the Red Sox with Cora, the Yankees with Boone on the bridge felt very comfortable with their youthful skipper.

"I thought he did a really great job," Gardner told a reporter. "I don't think you win 100 games without doing a great job in that post. With all the young guys who came up and played a big part, [he] communicate[d] with those guys and make them feel comfortable." And Boone earned a pleasant opening reputation for sharp game planning.

It's his in-game thinking that's going to take a lot of adjustment, alas. For all his game knowledge and all his foresight, Boone was just too hesitant to move when the actual Games 3 and 4 demanded it. Which is why, among other things, one particularly talented Photoshopper has sent somewhat viral an image of the Statue of Liberty in a Red Sox uniform. And why the Astros will get a battle at minimum when their former bench coach leads the Red Sox against them.

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