Would Terry Francona's decision to let Alex Cora bat in Sunday night's 5-3 loss to the Yankees be stirring the same passion if the Red Sox had not stumbled to 12 losses in their last 18 games, dropping them out of first place in the American League East? Doubtful. But because it happened with the Sox on a slide, and against the Yankees, Francona has displaced third base coach Dale Sveum as the No. 1 target of second-guessers.
Sveum is on the hook (again) for holding up Kevin Millar at third base in Saturday's 7-4 loss to the Yankees, a decision that shocked Doug Mirabelli, who correctly read Bill Mueller's bouncer up the middle, assumed Millar would score, then (incorrectly) put his head down and steamed toward third base, still occupied by Millar. Mirabelli was erased in a rundown, aborting the Sox' rally.
Cora entered Sunday's game in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement for second baseman Mark Bellhorn, who sprained his left thumb making a diving stop in the fourth inning. Cora came to the plate in the ninth with the bases loaded and two runs in, a throwing error by Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano having put closer Mariano Rivera in a jam.
Cora hit into a third-to-home-to-first double play, and Johnny Damon tapped out to end the game. Francona had the option of using John Olerud as a pinch hitter in that situation, but left Olerud on the bench, saying he didn't have anyone to play second base if the game had continued. The next day, Francona added that he ''really wanted to see Alex hit," explaining that some decisions transcend the specific situation, and he felt it was important to show confidence in the newcomer.
(Overlooked in the debate over Cora's at-bat was poor base running by Trot Nixon, who should have easily scored from second one batter earlier on Mueller's flare to right field, which dropped well in front of right fielder Gary Sheffield. Nixon did not make a good read on the ball, held up, and was forced to stop at third.)
Sox management, Francona included, prides itself on attention to numbers, and Francona's decision to let Cora hit appears to fly in the face of the numbers. Last season for the Dodgers, Cora went hitless in nine official at-bats with the bases loaded, just one of four players in the National League without a hit in such a situation (minimum 10 plate appearances). In his career, Cora's numbers with the bases loaded are awful: 6 for 44, a .136 average.
Olerud, meanwhile, is batting .351 (65 for 185) with the bases loaded. In two at-bats with the bases loaded this season, Olerud had singled and grounded into a double play. Cora was 0 for 1 this season with the bases loaded before Sunday night.
Cora had never faced Rivera; Olerud, who was Rivera's teammate last season, had three hits in 13 at-bats in his career against Rivera. And Rivera, according to the numbers, is most vulnerable with the bases loaded: In the last three seasons, opponents are batting .409 (9 for 22) against the Yankees closer with the bases loaded, although this season he had allowed just one hit in seven at-bats.
So, the numbers would clearly seem to favor Olerud batting in that situation. But break down the numbers further: Since July 5, Olerud had just one hit in 13 at-bats. And pinch hitting, a role unfamiliar to him, is not one that he has taken to in the past. He has one pinch hit in five at-bats for the Sox this season, a double against the Cubs at Wrigley Field June 11. That hit is just one of two Olerud has had as a pinch hitter in 21 at-bats since 1999. In his career, Olerud is batting .173 (13 for 75) as a pinch hitter. It's not an easy role.
Play with the numbers a little further: Let's say Pokey Reese, last season's utility man, had been at the plate, with Olerud available on the bench. Most people would say that's a no-brainer. Surprise: Reese hit .545 (6 for 11) with the bases loaded last season.
Another example: Sox fans would have been thrilled to see Mueller come to the plate with the bases loaded Sunday night, yes? Yet in 2004, Mueller was 0 for 11 with the bases loaded, joining Orlando Cabrera (0 for 9) as one of two Sox players who went hitless with the bases loaded last season. Yet this season, Mueller is leading the AL with a .643 average (9 for 14, 16 RBIs).
So, should Olerud have hit for Cora Sunday night? If Francona based his decision on his concern that he wouldn't have had a second baseman had the game gone into extra innings, that doesn't wash. Try to win the game first, worry about a second baseman later. Mueller at second and Millar at third was a viable option in an emergency.
But if Francona based his decision on his desire to take his chances with Cora instead of Olerud, the decision might not be as outrageous as it first appeared.