BOSTON – The ghosts were chased away from Fenway Park a long time ago, the cleansing so thorough that not even the devil of New England himself – a light-hitting shortstop whose pop fly over the Green Monster extended a century of baseball misery – could summon their return.
Tuesday night, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees played a one-game, loser-go-home contest for the first time since 1978, and the road team made sure Bucky Dent had a good seat. His name has carried a pejorative here since his Game 163 blast 43 years ago eliminated Boston and sent New York on to a repeat World Series title, and so he journeyed from Florida with his two World Series rings, hoping metaphysical boosts still meant something around here.
Dent must not have believed what he witnessed.
Instead of Red Sox-crushing home runs, a pair of majestic fly balls off the bat of Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton bounced harmlessly off – and not over – the Green Monster.
Instead of a ground-rule double, a liner off the bat of Boston’s Alex Verdugo checked up on the warning track in the right field corner and somehow snuggled below – not above – the 3-foot fence near Pesky’s Pole, enabling a crucial insurance run to score.
And instead of baseball’s most expensive pitcher ending Boston’s season, the Red Sox sent Gerrit Cole quickly into the winter, sucker-punching him with a pair of home runs, a bundle of walks, a bunt single, the mocking chants of “GERR-IT!” accompanying his shortest start – two season-crushing innings – as a Yankee.
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Boston led wire-to-wire in this American League wild-card game, and thanks to a tone-setting start from their own All-Star ace, Nathan Eovaldi, kept the Yankees at arm’s length and recorded a 6-2 victory that sent the Red Sox from a boisterous Fenway Park into the AL Division Series at Tampa Bay, beginning Thursday.
In a battle of 92-win teams whose uneven play relegated them to second and third fiddle behind the Rays all season, Boston played a clean game that belied a closing stretch of the season in which it lost five of seven and were forced to win Games 160-162 to avoid a one-game playoff.
The Yankees were in a similar boat, joining the Red Sox in this wild-card game with a final-day victory. Boston was a potential champion throughout the night.
“We lost the lead in the division,” says first baseman Kyle Schwarber, who led off the second inning with a towering shot off Cole, “but this team knows what it’s capable of doing.”
It was Eovaldi setting the tone, and that came as little surprise.
The Red Sox credit their 2018 World Series title to him thanks to a gallant six-inning extra-innings relief performance that saved their bullpen sufficiently to submit the Los Angeles Dodgers in just five games.
Tuesday, he saved their season.
Eovaldi blasted through the Yankee lineup with ruthless efficiency, striking out eight and walking none, running his fastball up to 100 mph but recording half his punchouts on his curveball and splitter. He needed just 71 pitches to carry the game into the sixth inning.
Not that it didn’t get scary.
Stanton, who blasted three homers and rapped out seven hits in a September sweep at Fenway that nearly extinguished the Sox’s season, picked up his carnage, looked like he never left. He took a two-out pitch toward the Monster in the first innings, and admired the flight towards Lansdown Street.
But the ball kicked off the upper reaches of the wall in left-center. It was a harmless single.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox jumped Cole quickly, a full-count walk from Rafael Devers preceding Xander Bogaerts’ blast into the center field bleachers for a 2-0 first-inning lead. By the third inning, he was gone, almost clowned by top of the lineup. A Schwarber homer, a Kike Hernandez single, and a walk to Devers ended his night.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” says Cole, now two years into a nine-year, $324 million contract.
The 3-0 lead looked safe in Eovaldi’s hands, but the Yankees won 92 games themselves behind a daunting lineup that finally awoke. Eovaldi was able to score in the sixth inning with Anthony Rizzo’s home run. Aaron Judge’s single in the infield scored Stanton, who became the tie-breaker.
Again, a blast that looked out of this park. It instead banged against the wall in left center. Judge, a 6-6 former tight end, walked around the bases.
But Hernandez gathered the ball seamlessly, fired a strike to Bogaerts and the shortstop hit catcher Kevin Plawecki with a perfect throw to the third base side of the plate.
Judge sprawled wildly to avoid the tag. No luck.
A 3-2 game instead stayed 3-1, and after a pair of RBI hits by Verdugo, there was no catching Boston. The season was almost over when Stanton struck, curling an opposite field drive around the Pesky Pole ninth.
Not that it was easy. It has never been easy.
“I thought 162 the other day was the most uncomfortable to manage in my career,” says manager Alex cora. This is the best. This is something else. “
Kind of like the Red Sox turning October into a charmed playground instead of a cursed hellscape. They have won four World Series titles since 2004, with dominant teams like the ’04 Idiots or the 118-win ’18 squad, and with imperfect teams like the slapdash 2013 edition.
This one may land somewhere in the middle, though they do share one commonality.
There’s nothing cursed about them, even if old ghosts inhabit the yard.