BOSTON — They would argue, aggravate one another, raise their voices, and had days they barely could stand looking at each other.
It was as if A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora were siblings, growing up in the same household, annoying each other, but if anyone outside the family dared to criticize, they would fiercely defend each other.
Now, one year after leading the Houston Astros to their first World Series championship together, they are on the opposite sides of the field, opposing managers in the American League Championship Series that opens Saturday (8:09 p.m. ET, TBS) at Fenway Park with the Astros and Boston Red Sox.
Hinch and Cora were together only a year, but they know one another better than themselves now, each becoming better managers after being side-by-side throughout their World Series run, and even close friends, exchanging text messages Wednesday to inform one another of their starting pitchers the first two games of the ALCS before telling the media.
“We were like brothers going at it,’’ Hinch tells USA TODAY Sports, “that aggressive bond. We had different personalities, but similar characteristics. We’d agree on things, disagree on others.
“He had his convictions and challenged me. He’s not afraid of confrontation. But he was good for me. He helped me grow. And I’d like to think I helped him, too.
“It seemed like fate we’d meet again. The story is almost too good not to happen.’’
These two clubs, who faced one another in the AL Division Series a year ago, have been on a collision course all season. The Astros and Red Sox combined for 211 wins, and only in the 1998 World Series with the Yankees and San Diego Padres have two postseason teams met with more victories.
“A.J. Hinch was amazing with me last year,’’ Cora said. “Our relationship grew up, and it got better. I learned a lot from him, and I appreciate what he did for me.
“But in the end, honestly, it’s not about us. A.J. is not throwing the ball. I’m not throwing the ball. My last at-bat was in 2011. It’s not about Alex Cora and AJ Hinch. It’s about the talent on the field.’’
It was Hinch who was responsible as anyone for Cora even getting this opportunity with no managerial experience. He praised him effusively to Red Sox GM David Dombrowski, believing Cora was ready for the job. Cora always believed it, too, maybe even too much, Red Sox co-owner John Henry said.
“My only criticism after we interviewed him,’’ Henry says, “I went back to Dave and I said, 'Dave, he's a little confident. In fact, he's overconfident.’
“But he was born to be a manager, he's a natural leader. I've never seen anybody do a better job of handling a clubhouse, from Day 1 throughout 162 games. I think he knew he was ready for this job.”
Cora, who led the Red Sox to more victories than any team in franchise history, was brilliant in the ALDS triumph against the New York Yankees. He was bold. Daring. And fearless with his moves.
Hinch couldn’t help but smile when he watched Cora gamble Tuesday by summoning ace Chris Sale for the eighth inning in Game 4 against the Yankees. If it failed, and the Red Sox lost, the Red Sox were likely done. Sale would have had to pitch on two day’s rest.
It was a year ago, in the ALDS, when Hinch brought in ace Justin Verlander in relief to pitch Game 4 against the Yankees. Cora was vehemently against it. He thought it was crazy.
It worked, and one year later, Cora was stealing a page out of Hinch’s playbook.
“He was against it when we did that,’’ Hinch said. “He wanted to be a little more conservative. I knew we had (Dallas) Keuchel in Game 5 as the backup plan, but Alex was so nervous, which is funny, because he’s not conservative at all.’’
If Cora, who turns 43 next week, was conservative, he certainly wouldn’t have brought in starter Rick Porcello in relief in Game 1, flipped his lineup for Game 3, benched Brock Holt a day after hitting for the cycle for Ian Kinsler in Game 4, put catcher Christian Vazquez in the lineup to catch Porcello for the first time all season, and pulled off the coup de grace with Sale.
“He was,’’ Henry said, “a magician.’’
When the Red Sox ran onto the Yankee Stadium infield to celebrate their Series victory, and struggling Game 2 starter David Price was hugging teammates, the fifth or sixth person he saw was Cora.
Cora grabbed him, held him close, and confidently told him: “You got Game 2.’’
Here they were, celebrating their first postseason triumph over the Yankees in 15 years, and Cora is telling Price that he believes in him so much he’s starting Sunday night. It didn’t matter that Price retired only five batters in Game 2 and was booed off the mound in their 6-2 loss. Cora didn’t care that Price has never won a postseason start in 10 tries, going 0-9 with a 6.03 ERA. Price was his man.
“That meant so much to me, but that’s AC,’’ Price told USA TODAY Sports, “he always has our back. He has such a great relationship with his players that we don’t view him as our manager. Not even in the dugout. He’s always walking in the dugout up and down, but not pacing, just talking to guys. He’s a fan in that dugout, he’s cheering, top-stepping, everything.”
Cora, who has drawn rave reviews all year, knows everything could change on a bad decision. The spotlight is brighter. The stakes are higher. And he now has a chess match against his mentor.
“This is the time of year where you’re going to get the most attention as a manager,’’ Hinch said, “both positively and negatively. What I appreciate about Alex is that he’ll be convicted either way. It won’t change his demeanor.’’
Win and advance to the World Series, or lose and go home, Cora insists, he’s not changing.
“There are more important things in my life than being a big-league manager,’’ Cora says. “That why I always put in perspective. This is crazy. It’s really crazy. But if you get caught up in the white noise and madness, you’re going to be in trouble.
“I just know we’ll be prepared.’’
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