Alex Cora attributes Red Sox’ 0-2 start to poor defensive effort: ‘The team’s that play good defense, they win ballgames. And the first two games, we haven’t done that’

The Red Sox are 0-2 to start a season for the first time since 2012.

One reason as to why the Sox are off to such a slow start is the fact that they have managed to score all of two runs — both of which came in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Orioles — through their first two games of the new campaign.

While that early lack of offensive production may be concerning, there is something else that has been hampering this Red Sox team, and that would be their defense.

Even by placing an emphasis on defense throughout spring training by setting up “defensive labs” scattered around the backfields at the Fenway South complex in Fort Myers, Red Sox manager Alex Cora has seen his team commit two errors and even more miscues since first pitch on Friday afternoon.

Kiké Hernández had difficulty fielding a hard-hit groundball off the bat of Anthony Santander in the sixth inning of Friday’s contest.

At the time, neither the Sox nor Orioles had managed to bring in a run, but Hernandez’s blunder — which came with runners on first and second and one out in the frame — while playing second base allowed everyone to reach base safely.

On what could have been a much-needed inning-ending double play for Matt Andriese, the top of the sixth continued and Baltimore took full advantage of Hernandez’s error when Ryan Mountcastle laced a two-run double off the Green Monster to plate his side’s first two runs of the day. The Orioles would go on to win by a final score of 3-0.

A day later, defensive miscues continued to plague the Sox in right-hander Tanner Houck’s first start of the season.

After getting through the first 3 2/3 innings of Saturday’s contest in relatively easy fashion, the 24-year-old ran into a bit of trouble in the fourth when he issued a two-out walk to Rio Ruiz.

Houck followed by getting Austin Hays to hit a broken bat ground ball to a sprawling Rafael Devers over at third.

Devers, having chosen to go to second base as opposed to first for what should have been an inning-ending force out, instead overthrew an outstretched Marwin Gonzalez covering the bag.

Devers’ errant throw wound up in shallow right field, and it — as well as as a passed ball by catcher Kevin Plawecki — allowed both Ruiz and Hays to advance an additional 90 feet to put a pair of runners in scoring position, though they wouldn’t stay there long.

That being the case because the Orioles again took advantage of a Red Sox mishap when Maikel Franco smacked a two-run single through the left side of the infield to give Baltimore a 2-0 lead.

An inning later, after they had scored a run in their half of the fourth, the Sox had the chance to hold the Orioles at two runs for the time being, but ultimately failed to do so.

With two outs and a runner at third, Houck found himself just one out away from getting out of a bit of a jam, and it looked like he was going to do so when he got Santander to rip a sharply-hit ground ball to Xander Bogaerts at short.

Bogaerts, having just made a tremendous diving play to hold that runner at third, attempted to backhand Santander’s grounder while backtracking to his left, but failed to bring in the ball cleanly which allowed Santander to reach base safely and drive in the run.

Bogaerts certainly had a tough play to make when considering where he fielded the ball as well as Santander’s speed down the first base line, but it was still one that — if made cleanly — could have made a difference later on. For what it’s worth, it was not ruled an error.

“I think defensively, the two games, we haven’t been sharp,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Saturday afternoon. “We made some bad decisions. We didn’t make any plays. For us, it’s very important to play defense. The team’s that play good defense, they win ballgames. And the first two games, we haven’t done that.”

In Devers’ case, the 24-year-old is coming off a 2020 season in which he committed 14 errors, ranking tops among big-league third basemen in regards to number of errors committed.

The mishap Devers had in the fourth inning on Saturday is one that could have been avoided had he backed off and let Bogaerts field Hays’ grounder instead. That over-eagerness is something the Red Sox are hoping to correct sooner rather than later.

“He wants to make every play,” Cora said about Devers when asked about his defense. “He’s just got to make better decisions. We love the effort. That was a ball way to his left. He gets to it. But, you got to know who you got next to you and you have to make better decisions. Like I said, the effort is there. If he makes that play, it’s a great play. But, it’s an above-average play. I rather have them make the average play and move on to the next play and do that. So, we’ll keep working with him. I think we have to just make better decisions.

“It was a tough play, regardless. At second or at first,” added the Sox skipper. “Sometimes you make those great plays and you’re better off moving on to the next one, right? Because it’s a tough play to throw to first. It’s a tough one to throw to second. You can put yourself and the team in a bad spot.”

The Red Sox themselves are a few months removed from a 2020 season in which they committed the second-most errors (45) and compiled the seventh-worst Ultimate Zone Rating (-2.5) in the American League last year, per FanGraphs.

For Cora, defense is something he wants to see the Sox excel at. He has yet to see that through the first two games of the 2021 campaign.

“Out of the three phases of the game (hitting, pitching, fielding), the defense part of it is the one that has been disappointing in the first two games,” Cora stated.

(Picture of Rafael Devers: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Alex Cora says team has to be better defensively in 2021: ‘That’s the bottom line’

During his re-introductory press conference back in November, one of the things that Red Sox manager Alex Cora emphasized was that his team needed to catch up to the speed of the game heading into the 2021 season.

“As a manager, as a coaching staff, I think spring training is going to be a lot different than ’18, ’19,” Cora said in the fall. “I do believe we have to catch up with the speed of the game. You look around and you look at the Padres, you look at the Rays, you look at the Dodgers and how athletic they are and how fast the game is. We have to catch up with that.

“It starts in the offseason, obviously, with workouts, and then we get to spring training,” he added. “It’s not going to be what you saw in ’18, ’19, kind of like building up, building up. Yeah, we’re going to build up, of course, so we don’t get hurt. But, at the same time I think the drills are going to be more dynamic. It’s going to be more game-time stuff, and I think they’re going to have fun doing that. And if we do that and we catch up with the speed of the division and the other teams, we’re going to be in a good spot.”

A little more than three months later, and Cora and Co. are already implementing these dynamic changes into their spring training drills at the Fenway South complex in Fort Myers. The Sox skipper said as much when speaking with reporters earlier Friday morning.

“Certain fields are dedicated for defense only,” Cora said via Zoom. “With the guidelines, we have to split them up. So, Fields 1 and 2 are going to be for infielders. Field 1 is going to be only for offense. Field 2 is going to be like a defensive lab. So they’re going to have machines, they’re going to be doing drills, everything is going to be defense. Fields 3 and 4 are going to be for outfielders. Same thing: One of the fields is going to be only for defense, the other one for offense. And for offense, too, they’re going to have cameras and they’re going to have Rapsodo and they’re going to have machines.

“It’s a way to get them up to what I want,” continued Cora. “And at the same time, with everything that is going on, to keep their minds away from the obstacles. Like I said yesterday, we’re lucky to be here. We’re lucky to be working, playing this game. I think we’re going to be more efficient as far as the work. We’re going to have a lot of stuff going on, which is cool.”

Cora added that additional fields will be reserved for pitchers and catchers, while newly-added turf close to the Red Sox clubhouse can be used for catching and infield drills and the batting cages can also be used for defensive work now that some nets have been taken down.

“It’s a pretty cool facility,” he opined. “You have to be open-minded, you have to be creative. We’re doing that and I think that’s going to help us to improve and get better.”

Aside from the COVID-19 protocols put in place by Major League Baseball for spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida, the driving force behind the Sox changing things up at Fenway South is to make defense more of a priority.

That being the case because over the last two seasons, both of which they failed to qualify for the postseason, Boston has put up rather pedestrian numbers.

They rank eighth in the American League in errors (133), seventh in fielding percentage (.984), ninth in defensive runs saved (-26), and sixth in ultimate zone rating (8.3) since 2019, per FanGraphs.

“We have to be better defensively. We have to be better defensively,” Cora said emphatically. “No doubt about it. That’s something championship teams do. I said, we have to be better than ’18 defensively, better than ’19, better than ’20. This is not about range factor or all that stuff that people measure, which is important. As far as first steps and angles going toward the ball, I’m going to challenge them to be better.”

The additions of versatile veterans like Enrique Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez should aid the Sox on the defensive side of things, but the club will still be banking on players like Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec, and Christian Vazquez to pick up things on their end as well.

“We’re looking for these guys to improve their defense,” said Cora. “Raffy, Xander, Bobby at first base, Michael, Christian. We have to be better defensively. That’s the bottom line.”

(Picture of Alex Cora: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)