BOSTON — In the span of 15 minutes all hell broke loose at Fenway Park on Saturday evening.
A day that started with Alex Verdugo as a late scratch from the lineup ended with perhaps the most gut-wrenching loss of the season for the Boston Red Sox and a side of clubhouse turmoil after the game to top it all off.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox drew within 5-4 of the Toronto Blue Jays and appeared poised to mount a comeback, putting two on with one out. Connor Wong’s towering shot to center field looked like the walk-off hit the Red Sox desperately needed, as they were in danger of losing six of their past seven games. Instead of that jolt of energy, catcher Reese McGuire, the tying run at second base, and third-base coach Calos Febles both misread the ball, one that center fielder Kevin Kiermaier caught against the wall. Kiermaier fired into second and doubled off McGuire, who was already rounding third, hands in the air ready to celebrate.
As if the brutal slap-in-the-face, one-run loss wasn’t bad enough, moments later, in the interview room after the game, a livid manager Alex Cora revealed he had benched Verdugo for a “manager’s decision” and would not elaborate more.
MLB.com’s Ian Browne later reported that Verdugo was benched because he arrived two hours before the game. Players typically are required to arrive four to five hours before a game for meetings and extra work. Many arrive even earlier.
“I think today we took a step back as a team,” said a visibly angry Cora. “We have to make sure everybody’s available every single day here for us to get to wherever we’re going to go. And that wasn’t the case. And as a manager, I got to take charge of this and I decided (Verdugo) wasn’t gonna play.”
Cora was asked a series of follow-up questions to clarify but kept repeating it was a “manager’s decision” to bench Verdugo.
“Everybody has to be available,” Cora said. “For us to do this, everybody has to be available. From coaches to players to analysts to the front office. Everybody has to be available every single day here. That’s the bottom line. And today, one guy wasn’t available.”
Reached for comment by The Athletic, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said regarding Cora’s decision to bench Verdugo, “I support his decision 100 percent” but would not add anything to Cora’s postgame remarks.
The awful game-ending play, a brand of bad base running and generally shoddy play that has become all too familiar for the Red Sox this season pushed Boston further down the wild-card standings. They now sit four games back of the Jays.
The Verdugo news, likely a distraction to the team throughout the game, only deepened the embarrassment of the day.
“This is probably one of my worst days here in this organization because from day one, everybody has been available, from day one,” Cora said. “We had our issues, whatever, and we have taken care of our things, but today, we took a step back. I feel responsible, because I’m the leader of this team, and it’s hard. It’s hard. But we’ll show up tomorrow and we’re gonna grind again. We’re gonna go for it. But today, very disappointed.”
Verdugo was in the dugout during the game as the chaos unfolded. After Cora’s media session, when reporters entered the silent clubhouse, Verdugo was at his locker, fully dressed and in discussion with a Red Sox media relations director. Shortly thereafter, the 27-year-old walked over to the cameras to field questions.
“Just manager’s decision,” he said initially. “We’re going to leave it at that and you know, just be ready to play tomorrow.”
Verdugo was asked if he arrived on time at the park Saturday and said yes, but later he admitted his head has not been in the game lately. Earlier in the season, Cora benched Verdugo for not hustling on a play in Cleveland.
“I got to be better and I expect more from myself,” Verdugo said. “Just to go out there and finish the next seven weeks strong.
“I just expect to be more present,” he added. “I expect to be more just alert, understanding of the game, what’s going on, reading the pitchers, seeing how they’re working the hitters, just more in tune with the game and in tune with everything. I feel like I’ve been kind of battling myself a little bit. So it’s time to just kind of stop battling myself and go battle the pitcher.”
After a strong three months to start the season, Verdugo has been struggling for the past five weeks. On June 30, he was hitting .301 with an .836 OPS. Since then, his average has dropped to .270 and his OPS to .768.
At the end of last season, Cora called out Verdugo as a player he wanted to see more from in the upcoming year. Verdugo responded over the first few months of the season as one of the players who kept the club afloat and appeared to be on an All-Star track. But lately, that hasn’t been the case.
On Saturday, Verdugo said he appreciates and respects Cora and his decisions even if he doesn’t always agree.
“When he’s hard on me, he lets me know how it is, I respond well to it,” Verdugo said. “I’m somebody who I take it on the chin like a man. I understand what I do. And it’s time to get up and kind of dust off your feet and just go again, you know what I mean? You’ve got to go out there, play hard, run hard, just play the game like we were kids again. And I think that’s the big thing.”
Where the Red Sox go from here is unknown. For a team that was running on fumes following two West Coast trips in less than a month, a team that didn’t get any meaningful trade-deadline reinforcements, particularly on the pitching side, and now a team that must deal with added drama and distraction, everything they’re facing feels insurmountable.
Will Verdugo’s actions cause a rift in the clubhouse for an already floundering team? Or will the latest embarrassment galvanize the team down the stretch?
Saturday night in a quiet clubhouse, it felt much more like the former than the latter.
(Photo of Alex Verdugo: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)