NEW YORK – Yankee Stadium, asleep for eight innings, resigned to what seemed like the inevitability of the Boston Red Sox coming into the Bronx and ending the New York Yankees’ season, awoke in the ninth inning. Runners were everywhere. The tying run was on second base, the go-ahead run on first. The deficit was one.
And then it was over. Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel averted a complete meltdown, inducing a groundout that needed to be upheld by instant replay and cinching a 4-3 victory that sent the Red Sox to the AL Championship Series and allowed them to celebrate in front of 49,641 at their rivals’ stadium.
What looked like a sure-thing, easy clinch turned into anything but. When the bullpen door swung open at 10:53 p.m. local time, in jogged Chris Sale, the latest trick in Alex Cora’s bag of managerial sorcery. Throughout the series between the Red Sox and Yankees, Boston’s first-year manager was pushing the right buttons as his fellow rookie counterpart, New York’s Aaron Boone, seemed one step behind. And in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, with the Red Sox primed to take a boot to the windpipe of the Yankees, Cora deployed Sale.
The score was 4-1, and it would stay that way as Sale pitched a perfect eighth inning and ceded to Kimbrel, who they hoped would do the same. Then he was wild, sandwiching two walks around a hit before allowing a run on a hit by pitch. Gary Sánchez’s near-miss grand slam turned into a sacrifice fly, bringing the Yankees within a run. Cora stuck with Kimbrel and was rewarded with a groundout by rookie Gleyber Torres.
The entire game – the series, really – was a managerial clinic from Cora and his 108-win team. He shook off a patchwork bullpen to cobble together outs, confident enough to go with Sale, who was scheduled to be his Game 5 starter. He inserted players into the lineup at the right times, including Christian Vázquez, the backup catcher whose Game 4 home run accounted for the Red Sox’s final run. In Game 3, it was starting Brock Holt, who hit for the first postseason cycle, and moving up starter Nathan Eovaldi, who was scheduled to pitch Game 4, by a day.
Instead, Rick Porcello went five solid innings for the Red Sox, and after they fought through Kimbrel’s pickle in the ninth, they won their second consecutive postseason series against the Yankees after losing the first two.
“We have a chance to do something special tonight,” Cora said before the game, “and if we don’t do it tonight, then we’ll do it in two days.”
On Thursday, the Red Sox will be relaxing in preparation for Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday against the Houston Astros, who ran roughshod through the Cleveland Indians in a Division Series sweep. The two best teams in baseball will face off in a seven-game series with their rotations lined up, their bullpens rested and their pennant on the line.
‘To get there, Boston needed to touch up 38-year-old CC Sabathia in Game 4. Pitching in what could be his last game for the Yankees, Sabathia was tagged in the third inning for three runs. He hit the first batter of the inning, Andrew Benintendi, allowed a single to the second, Steve Pearce, yielded a run on a J.D. Martinez sacrifice fly and gave up a pair of two-out, run-scoring hits to Ian Kinsler and Eduardo Núñez. Only after the inning did Boone finally yank Sabathia – too little and too late, again, as was the case in Game 3, when he was too liberal with a hook on starter Luis Severino.
To call Boone’s first season anything other than a success would be disingenuous. The Yankees won 100 games. They graduated Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andújar, the former a linchpin of the franchise going forward and the latter likely to show up on most Rookie of the Year ballots. They also are approaching a decade without a World Series appearance, their last coming with a 2009 championship.
Boston, meanwhile, is angling for its fourth title in the past 15 seasons. The first, in 2004, broke an 86-year stretch without a championship. The second, in 2007, reinforced Boston’s staying power. The third, in 2013, came under different management and helped make up for last-place finishes the year before and two after. One this season wouldn’t just validate the wheeling and dealing of team president Dave Dombrowski, whose trades for Sale and Kimbrel cost the Red Sox significant pieces of what was a deep farm system. It would be the first ring for superstar Mookie Betts, for Martinez, for Benintendi, for Sale and Kimbrel and so many others who made the most successful regular season in Red Sox history what it was.
“Our goal,” Cora said, “is to win 11 games in October.”
Three down. Eight to go.
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