Cora's spark keeping Sox balanced
Utility man finds knack for timely hits as Pedroia develops
NEW YORK -- Alex Cora has one of the most difficult but nevertheless essential jobs on a Major League roster. He is a utility man. His appearances in the starting lineup are few and far between, yet every day, he must come to the park and go through the rigorous routine of preparing for a game that, most likely, he will observe from a seat on the bench.
Being ready is the motto for the fifth and sixth infielders, the fourth and fifth outfielders and the backup catchers, the fill-in bunch to which Cora belongs. At any time, a regular can go down, springing the utility man into action. Few notice or value what he does, except the manager, who rewards such duty with an occasional start.
On Sunday, Cora turned such a start into an occasion. From the nine-hole in the Red Sox's batting order, Cora, starting at second base, provided a home run, a triple, three RBIs and two runs scored as the Sox claimed the rubber game of a three-game series against the Yankees with a 7-4 victory.
The game marked Cora's sixth start of the season. The Red Sox have won all of them. Coincidence? Manager Terry Francona doesn't think so.
"Actually, I like talking about him," Francona said. "Not just because today he drove in three runs, but because he is a good player. He's always in the right place. He knows how to play."
The highlight reels will center on Cora's two-run home run off Chien-Ming Wang in the fifth inning, which thrust the Red Sox into a 4-3 lead, or the triple to right in the seventh that led to an insurance run on Julio Lugo's sacrifice fly. Cora is aware, however, that the play Francona probably enjoyed most was an RBI groundout in the third inning.
Coco Crisp led off that inning with a triple to right field. Behind, 1-0, at the time, the Yankees kept the infield back, conceding a run to ward off a big inning. Cora had one thought in mind: Make contact, but keep the ball on the ground and avoid hitting one of Wang's sinkers back to the pitcher. Cora pulled a grounder to shortstop Derek Jeter, who threw him out at first while Crisp scored.
"That's what I'm supposed to do," Cora said. "The other things, I'll take as they come, but if you ask Tito [Francona], he'll tell you that's what he wants. Man at third, less than two outs, get the run in. When you play once a week and pop up in that situation with the infield back, you'll be thinking about that for a long time."
Cora's home run off a 2-0 fastball away offset the momentum the Yankees felt from Doug Mientkiewicz's three-run home run in the third inning. It was another Yankee-killing moment for Cora, whose eighth-inning single off Mariano Rivera on April 20 at Fenway Park proved the game-winner. The previous day, Cora also had a game-winning triple at Toronto.
Cora's 2-for-4 performance on Sunday raised his average to .360 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 25 at-bats. In the past nine games in which he has had an at-bat, Cora has driven in seven runs, collecting eight hits in 21 at-bats (.381).
"It's a good streak, a good month, I guess," Cora said. "You can't get caught up in the numbers. You just have to do it in certain situations. You have to keep working on the little things, working on your defense.
"Hey, everybody wants to get RBIs and three hits a day, but you still have to realize what your role is and what you have to do to help the team."
Francona has turned to Cora, 31, a bit more regularly because rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia has struggled at the plate, batting .182 with two RBIs in 55 at-bats. Cora, once a regular with the Dodgers, has seen his value limited to one of baseball's thankless jobs for the past four years.
"You don't think about anything, just play," Cora said. "If your name is in the lineup, go out and do your best."
Prior to Sunday, Cora had been hitless in 14 career at-bats at Yankee Stadium.
"I had just one start here before this one," he said. "Most of those at-bats were in situations where I came in the late innings of games. So that doesn't count."
Spoken like a true utility man.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.