The Red Sox and Yankees labored deep into the Bronx night Sunday, Boston clinging to the last shreds of its wild-card lead and dignity, the Yankees with nothing to prove or gain.
As the innings and hours ticked by, the New England faithful could watch their lives in fandom pass slowly before their eyes.
Would this be a Big Papi night, or an Aaron Boone? Will there be a Billy Buckner or a Bucky Dent?
Forget the three games remaining in the season; the air around the Red Sox had a postseason finality to it, a sense that this was a deciding game, even though it’s not.
(A word to the fans of the Cubs, Indians, Pirates, and Royals: Yes, I understand that your plight is worse, and an ulcer-inducing late September game sounds like a glorious dream. If it will help you feel better, I’ll make the obligatory joke about the poor three-and-a-half-year-old children who’ve never seen the Red Sox win a World Series in their lifetimes.)
It’s been an amazing September for the Bosox. Entering the Sunday night marathon, the Red Sox were 5-18 for the month. They had won exactly one game in which they’d scored fewer than 12 runs.
Boston had scored 125 runs and allowed 151 in their 23 September games. The analytically inclined might point out that the team has been somewhat unlucky, since their Pythagorean projection from those two totals suggest they should have gone 9-14 – still a crummy record, but one that would have been good enough to clinch a playoff spot.
They have gone 0-6 in one-run games for the month. That too indicates bad luck, which should even out in the long run (unless those losses are themselves the evening-out process, since they brought Boston’s one-run record to 18-18 for the season).
Luck is not the first word that comes to mind when considering the shoddy fielding, the rally-killing double-play grounders, and the unwatchable starting pitching. The staff ERA for September was 6.08 before Sunday night; for starting pitchers, it was 7.32, and those starters were averaging fewer than five innings per outing. (Which is kind of a good news/bad news joke, like “The food there is terrible – and such small portions!”)
There have been inevitable comparisons to the epic 1978 collapse that culminated in Bucky Dent’s home run at Fenway in the 163rd game of the season. Boston had a 14-game lead over New York on July 19 – but from that point to the end of the year, its record was a reasonable 37-36, and 15-16 in September/October. The Yankees caught them by going 52-21 and 23-9 respectively.
Those marks are a far cry from Tampa Bay’s modest 14-10 this September.
As darkness fell on Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox did their best to dig themselves a hole. With one out and runners on first and third, Mark Teixeira blasted a double off the padding at the top of the center-field wall; Jacoby Ellsbury threw to Dustin Pedroia, who turned and fired to the plate. A good throw would have caught Robinson Cano trying to score, but Pedroia’s was high and to the first-base side. Jason Veritek saw Teixeira heading for third, and tried to gun him down, but his throw sailed into left field and three runs scored when there could have been one.
John Lackey was on the mound for Boston, toting his 6.49 ERA for the season – the highest mark in Red Sox history for any pitcher with 140 or more innings. The three-spot was likely just the beginning, since Lackey’s September ERA was 10.70 in four starts.
But Lackey on Sunday was the pitcher Boston thought it was getting when it signed him two years ago from the Angels. He allowed five more baserunners in his six innings, and three of them were erased on infield grounders (two double plays and a fielder’s choice at third). The Red Sox chipped away, and took a 4-3 lead in the seventh on doubles by Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro and a Varitek single.
The Yankees got even against Alfredo Aceves in the bottom half of the seventh, and then the game settled into its usual tense torpor between these two teams. Boston put a runner on third with two out in the ninth against Mariano Rivera, who struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Yankees advanced the winning runner to third twice, but Jonathan Papelbon – who worked two and a third innings, bringing back memories of Keith Foulke in 2004 – struck out Austin Romine in the ninth, and Franklin Morales did the same to Brett Gardner in the thirteenth.
(Remarkably, the Yankees kept trying to win, even though it is undoubtedly in their interest to see the struggling Red Sox make the playoffs rather than the pitching-rich Rays. Baseball commissioners frown on the idea that teams might put forth less than full effort to win any game. As a purely ethical matter, though, why should a team have to try to win a game when losing might improve its chances of winning the World Series by eliminating a dangerous opponent? How is this different from shutting down a pitcher or resting one’s regulars in the hope of seeing a long-term gain from weakening one’s lineup in the short term?)
At last, in the 14th inning Boston reached the Scott Proctor stage of the Yankees’ September pen, and Jacoby Ellsbury took on the Papi role, homering to right-center with two on (his third home run of the day-night doubleheader) to give the Sox a 7-4 lead that even Felix Doubront couldn’t lose. The victory left Boston a full game ahead of the Rays for the wild card, and three up on the Angels.
A relieved Red Sox crew headed down to Baltimore for the final three games, while the Yankees went south to take on Tampa Bay. And all across New England, confused fans asked themselves, “Do I really want to keep watching this team play baseball after Wednesday?”