As the Yankees began to slowly get their groove back this week, it was easy to forget — in the barrage of home runs, increasingly patient at-bats and encouraging turns by J. A. Happ and Luis Severino — that the Boston Red Sox have not roared to the verge of a franchise record for victories by happenstance.
They delivered a reminder of that on Thursday night, absorbing the body blow of a Giancarlo Stanton grand slam, then tearing into the meat of the Yankees’ bullpen for an emphatic 11-6 victory that clinched the American League East title.
When Stanton waved at a slider in the dirt from Craig Kimbrel for the final out, the Red Sox poured out of the dugout to celebrate a division title in the Bronx for the second time in three seasons. They congregated near the mound and then turned to their fans behind the third-base dugout who cheered them as Frank Sinatra crooned over the stadium speakers about those little town blues.
Their 104th win, one shy of the franchise record set in 1912, not only highlighted their relentless lineup and a resourceful pitching staff — the knuckleballer Steven Wright befuddled the Yankees for three innings of relief — but also why they have been swept in a series just once this season.
When the Yankees reported for spring training, seven long months ago, it was with a renewed swagger. They had surprised everyone last season by riding a wild-card berth to a game away from the World Series and then made a move over the winter that those Evil Empire Yankees teams always seemed to make: acquiring Stanton, the reigning National League most valuable player.
But they have found themselves in the same position as last year — and the year before that: looking up at the Red Sox.
When Mookie Betts blasted a three-run homer in the eighth inning off Aroldis Chapman, his welcome-back gift from the disabled list, Yankees fans headed up the aisles for the exit, seeing little point in watching the Red Sox celebrate.
“They’ve had a solid year; you can’t deny that,” Stanton said. “You never want it to be here if they get it, but we get what we got. They can celebrate now and we’ve got time to celebrate later.”
If the Yankees were in no mood to watch the Red Sox jubilate, their disposition was not brightened by glancing at the scoreboard. Earlier in the day, the Oakland Athletics routed the Los Angeles Angels to close to one and a half games behind in the race for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.
If the series against the Red Sox left the Yankees with some hopeful signs, others were worrisome — particularly a poor start by Masahiro Tanaka, who was raked for eight hits and five runs and had to be lifted without getting an out in the fifth. Tanaka, who relies heavily on his splitter and slider to deceive hitters, had trouble from the start. The Red Sox took 45 swings against Tanaka and failed to make contact only 10 times.
Tanaka’s performance on Thursday may weigh heavily in how the Yankees configure their rotation for the playoffs. They would like to save Happ for the division series against the Red Sox, because they could use him twice — in Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 5 — in a ballpark where he was performed well over his career.
But in a one-game playoff, can the Yankees afford to trust Severino — who lasted just two and two-thirds innings in a start at Oakland earlier this month — or Tanaka?
There will be other factors for the Yankees to consider, including the status of their race with the A’s, when they head to Boston for a regular season-ending series next weekend.
The Yankees picked Tanaka up for a time with their continued patient approach. They drew seven walks against the left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez and closed to 3-2 when Luke Voit hit his third home run of the series — a two-run shot to center.
And after Brock Holt pushed the lead to 4-2 with a solo home run, it was Stanton’s turn to do some heavy lifting.
Stanton had descended into a deep funk since his return last month to Miami, where he had spent his career before engineering a trade to the Yankees last December. He entered Thursday having batted .130 with two home runs and 38 strikeouts since Aug. 24.
“Every hitter strives to be on time and be in that good position to hit, and I think he’s had a little bit of a hard time being on time consistently,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “And the result is sometimes you don’t swing at pitches you should be or you’re a little behind pitches.”
It must have been encouraging, then, to see Stanton draw walks in his first two at-bats.
When Stanton came to bat for the third time, it was after Rodriguez had walked the bases loaded with two out, and he was replaced by the right-hander Heath Hembree. Stanton looked at a fastball for a strike and then lashed a slider that was left over the plate just over the right-field wall.
When the ball cleared the wall, putting the Yankees ahead by 6-4, Stanton pointed to the dugout as he circled the bases and then leapt high to high-five Didi Gregorius when he crossed home plate. As the crowd continued to roar, Stanton came out of the dugout and took a curtain call.
If the blow seemed like a key moment, it was a fleeting one.
Tanaka did not get another out — giving up a double to Betts and a single to Andrew Benintendi to start the fifth. David Robertson was brought on to face Martinez, whose smash up the middle was slickly gobbled up by Gregorius, who contorted his body to do so and then flipped the ball backhanded to second baseman Gleyber Torres to start a double play.
Green buzzed through the sixth, striking out the side. But as has often been the case, he was not able to sustain success in his second inning of relief. Jackie Bradley Jr. started the seventh by clubbing the second pitch he saw — a changeup — into the right-field seats to tie the score at 6-6.
Christian Vazquez followed with a single to right, and that was it for Green. He was replaced by Dellin Betances, who struck out Betts but gave up a double to Benintendi that chased Vazquez to third. J. D. Martinez was intentionally walked and Tzu-Wei Lin replaced Vazquez as a pinch-runner.
Betances jumped ahead of Bogaerts with two quick strikes, but he fouled off the next pitch, took a ball and then lifted a curveball to center field.
Hicks may have had a puncher’s chance of getting Lin — maybe one worth taking given that the score was tied — but instead made an overly aggressive throw to third even though Benintendi had no intention of going. Hicks’s throw short-hopped third baseman Miguel Andujar, kicking off his glove and into the stands, sending Bentintendi home as well as Lin.