With the Wild Card in the Books, an Imperfect Boston Team Advances to the ALDS

BOSTON — The American League Wild Card matchup that few fanbases wanted turned out to be… well, not quite everything that anyone could have asked for. There were big plays and some sixth-inning drama, but by no means did it qualify as a Red Sox-Yankees classic. As much as anything, it was an Alex Cora-managed team showing that it was worthy of a postseason berth despite the skepticism that came with an up-and-down second half. In front of 38,324 fans at Fenway Park, Boston beat New York by a score of 6-2 Tuesday night.

The tone was set early.

Giancarlo Stanton came into the game with a .389/.451/.689 slash line and a 208 wRC+ in 102 career plate appearances at Fenway Park. He’d gone deep six times, and two outs into the first inning it looked like that number would become seven. Stanton certainly seemed to think so; standing in the box, he briefly admired what ended up being a 345-foot single — exit velo 94.8 mph — off the Green Monster. Joey Gallo then fanned to end the inning.

The top half served as an omen. Instead of an early New York lead, the game remained scoreless. But not for long. With a runner on in the bottom half, Xander Bogaerts blasted a Gerrit Cole offering 427 feet into the center field bleachers, a bomb that was preceded by a bit of mano-a-mano electricity. Rafael Devers swung out of his shoes early in the count during his at-bat, and the veteran right-hander responded by buzzing him with a fastball on the next pitch. Undaunted, the young slugger kept his composure and worked the Yankees ace for what turned out to be a fruitful walk.

When he met with the media on Monday, Cole called the opportunity to play in the postseason “kind of the carrot at the end of the road.” Three batters into his third inning of work, he reached the end of his own. Prior to Clay Holmes coming out of the ‘pen to put out further fire — Boston ended up stranding a pair of runners — Kyle Schwarber hit a moonshot deep into the Fenway night. Struck at 110.3 mph, the ball traveled 435 feet to straightaway right.

Another Cole quote came to mind at that moment: “In the end, you can’t control how good of a swing they take; you can only control how good of a pitch you make.”

Schwarber provided some quality quotes of his own in Monday’s presser. When asked about handling the pressure of a high-stakes game, the postseason-tested veteran said, “As the game keeps rolling on, rolling on, the battle is to keep the voices out of your head and just take it inning by inning, pitch by pitch. You can’t look too far ahead in these games.”

It goes without saying that a 3-0 game in the third inning is far from over. That’s especially true at Fenway, and when you factor in the nerve-inducing unreliability of the Red Sox bullpen, the lead was anything but safe. Koji Uehara was on the premises, but as a member of the Japanese TV media, not as the shut-down reliever that Alex Cora sorely lacks.

Despite those concerns, Nathan Eovaldi got a quicker hook than might have been expected. Just 71 pitches into what had been a pristine outing (he recorded eight strikeouts against no walks, with his fastball averaging 98 mph), Boston’s best starter was pulled after giving up a sixth-inning solo shot to Anthony Rizzo followed by an Aaron Judge infield single. With the third-time-through-the-order penalty clearly in mind, Cora went to Ryan Brasier to face Stanton.

This time the result wasn’t an omen, but rather a play at the plate. The Yankees Goliath drove a ball high off the wall in left-center — this one a laser beam at 114.9 mph — and New York third base coach Phil Nevin windmilled his arm as the potential second run neared third. Thanks to a perfectly-executed relay, Judge was a dead duck at home.

The Red Sox answered in the bottom half. Alex Verdugo followed a Bogaerts walk with a gap shot, and this time it was Boston third base coach Carlos Febles windmilling his arms. The relay was clean, but not quite in time. It was now 4-1. Little more than a week after the Yankees swept a three-game series, putting their arch rival’s postseason hopes in serious jeopardy, the Red Sox were now nine outs away from an ALDS date with the Tampa Bay Rays.

On Monday, Aaron Boone was asked what impact the late-September sweep might have on tonight’s winner-take-all affair.

“Whenever I’ve been asked about momentum in baseball, I never knew what to answer until 2003,” the Yankees manager told reporters, referring to the back-and-forth ALCS he won with an epic Game 7 walk-off home run. “Being a part of that team, and playing against a great Red Sox team, I used to hear that all the time. We’d win a game and we’d ‘grab the momentum.’ Then they’d beat the crap out of us the next day. It was, ‘OK, I don’t know what any of it means.’”

A trio of Red Sox relievers proceeded to hold down the fort for the final three frames. Despite the dangerous — if maddeningly inconsistent — Yankees lineup, no drama remained. A two-run, bases loaded single by Verdugo in the seventh inning essentially sealed the deal, making Stanton’s ninth-inning round tripper off Garrett Whitlock, a 2020 Rule 5 Draft pick selected from New York’s system, a mere footnote.

Again, this was a Red Sox team that many, including the Boston fanbase, felt didn’t deserve a trip to the postseason. Not after falling out of first place and playing .500 ball over the second half. Cora saw it differently. In the end, he was proven right.

“We are who we are,” Cora had said on Monday. “We’re not perfect. But we didn’t run into [92] wins by being lucky. We have a good baseball team… We’re not going to change who we are in one night, but one thing we can do is win a game, just like we did 92 times.”

That number is now 93. Imperfect though they are, the Red Sox are heading to the ALDS.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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10 months ago

Really fun piece, of course excellent quotes! One edit: “ Three batters into his second inning of work” – was Cole’s third inning of work