Yankees: Alex Cora still running playoff circles around Aaron Boone

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 05: Manager Alex Cora #13 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after beating the New York Yankees 6-2 in the American League Wild Card game at Fenway Park on October 05, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 05: Manager Alex Cora #13 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after beating the New York Yankees 6-2 in the American League Wild Card game at Fenway Park on October 05, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images) /

There was a moment at the start of Tuesday’s Wild Card showdown between opposing managers Aaron Boone of the New York Yankees and Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox. Did you spot it?

Boone seemed to signal to his counterpart, who signaled back. A moment of levity without a beginning, middle, and end, seemingly meaningless, but lighthearted.

And then, as he did in 2018, Cora absorbed Boone’s confusing challenge, politely waved and nodded, then kicked his team’s ass. It was the baseball embodiment of the Chris Paul smile-to-sneer GIF over the course of nine dull innings.

Well, only dull if you rooted for the loser.

Cora, with an admittedly checkered past, has managed 15 postseason games with the Red Sox to date. Though he struggled to get Boston to the dance during their 2019 repeat bid — with a lot going on behind the scenes — he’s been nearly unbeatable in October, riding hunches, instincts and a flexible bullpen to a 12-3 record. Somehow, no one’s caught on yet that even if the Sox lack back-end depth, they’ll be able to suddenly convert two or three starters to relief specialists as soon as the rigors of the regular season have ended.

Boone? He never deviates from a plan unless under extreme duress, like in Tuesday night’s one-gamer, where he was often only a batter slow to remove a reliever instead of two batters behind. He’s a .500 postseason manager for a team with a championship-or-bust mentality every year. That … cannot continue.

Alex Cora is a much better postseason manager than the Yankees’ Aaron Boone.

On a more granular level, each one of Boone’s four postseasons in pinstripes has been marked by at least one jaw-dropping moment that seemed to change the trajectory of everything.

In 2018, Boone’s Bombers were actually, well, set up kind of nicely to defeat the 108-win Red Sox. Alex Cora had his win wall and his folder full of gimmicks, and it just didn’t matter all that much, as Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez bashed Eduardo Rodriguez and David Price into oblivion. A 1-1 series headed back to the Bronx, until … Luis Severino forgot the Game 3 start time, Lance Lynn entered at the complete wrong time and barely appeared in the series, and the entire run went down the drain.

In 2019, he simply didn’t have enough pitching to complete the task at hand, ending up with Chad Green as a Game 6 starter on the road. Boone will likely feel forever slighted when that Astros ALCS gets discussed, surely thinking there was something going on with his opponent’s whistling. But we’ll never know.

In 2020, there was the JA Happ bullpen plan, which somehow ruined both the ALDS and Deivi Garcia entirely.

And in 2021, there was the Friday night before the Wild Card Game, where Domingo German simply had to get his “work in” before the long playoff run … which ended up being one game long, due in large part to squandered home field advantage and the shifting dimensions of Fenway Park, which swallowed up a pair of Giancarlo Stanton shots.

Now, why did Alex Cora pull Nathan Eovaldi with one out in the sixth inning? Is it because he knew Giancarlo Stanton was extremely unlikely to make an out, and didn’t want to darken Eovaldi’s line further? Did he just know that, as long as he escaped with a lead intact, Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck could’ve protected any size advantage they were given for the final three innings?

We disagreed with the hook at first blush (well, we loved it, but we’re Yankees fans), but like everything else Cora does between the lines, it worked. The playoffs are different to Cora. He has the innate ability to shrug off a dreary July week or even a midseason collapse and reenergize his players just in time for the biggest stage, when he seems to be able to tap them on the heads and whisper, “I’ve got this.”

Cora made that clear when he shooed away the idea of a fiery speech prior to the postseason opener, claiming that if anyone didn’t know by now that they needed to be fired up, there was nothing more he could do. And maybe that’s the secret. Cora’s group of guys was unified, ready to put their “spikes on” and pitch out of the bullpen, prepared for whatever it took to embarrass the Yankees. Because, through ups and downs, they played their entire 162-game season to absorb this moment.

Boone’s Yankees? They take series off. They pre-plan rest days. They throw, say, three minor-league starters in a row against the Detroit Tigers and punt an entire series. If the manager doesn’t seem to care about building momentum, and the front office designs chances to take their foot off the gas pedal, then maybe, by October, the team really doesn’t know how fired up they need to be.

And, given time to breathe, Boone is left with an October exam he didn’t study for. That is the Cora difference.