BOSTON — For three months, the Boston Red Sox were an aggravating enigma, a first-place team relegated to wild-card status thanks to their own ragged play and maddening inconsistency, fueling doubts that this club that sent a league-high five players to the All-Star Game might be anything but championship caliber.
Yet if the Red Sox sauntered cautiously onto the Fenway Park turf for Tuesday night’s American League wild-card game against the similarly fickle New York Yankees, they earned every right to swagger off of it.
And after a dominant and at times electric 6-2 triumph over their arch rivals, the Red Sox are giddily pondering something besides their own validity.
Specifically, can a 3 hour, 12 minute display of startling baseball rid them of the second half wobbles and launch a potential championship run?
“We just did something pretty spectacular,” says shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who made the two biggest plays of the night – a two-run first-inning home run off Gerrit Cole that tossed figurative kerosene over an already lit Fenway Park crowd, and a perfect relay throw to cut down Aaron Judge at home plate and preserve a 3-1 lead in the sixth.
Bogaerts’ struggle mirrored those of his team. The Red Sox imperiled their postseason chances when the Yankees flattened them in a three-game sweep at Fenway in late September, with Bogaerts’ 1-for-12 performance the beginning of a season-ending 5-for-32 skein.
They did not back into the playoffs – a 1-5 skid stopped with a season-saving sweep at Washington to equal the Yankees’ 92 wins – but the narrative was established.
The Red Sox could not find their footing after a COVID-19 outbreak ravaged the roster. Their many defensive and baserunning lapses would be their undoing and certainly, they were in too deep against Stanton and Cole and the imposing Yankees.
WATCH: ESPN announcers, John Sterling thought Giancarlo Stanton hit home run in first inning
MLB PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Postseason march to the World Series
They overcame the Yankees. And maybe looking in the mirror isn’t so daunting, anymore.
“Sometimes it looks horrible,” says manager Alex Cora, “but 93 times this year it hasn’t looked horrible, so we’re going to keep rolling.”
All the way to Tampa Bay. Game 1 of the AL Division Series is Thursday at Tropicana Field, with the Red Sox strangely in the role of underdog. Ace Nathan Eovaldi – who dazzled with eight strikeouts and no walks in 5 ⅓ innings Tuesday – won’t be available until Game 3 Sunday at Fenway Park.
The Rays seized the AL East lead from Boston on July 31, and the defending AL champions won 100 games for the first time in franchise history.
“They are a very clean team, to be honest,” says Bogaerts. “You see with the pitching staff or especially defensively, they don’t give any extra outs. That’s a team that plays best.”
It doesn’t get much cleaner than the play Bogaerts quarterbacked.
With Eovaldi finally nicked for a solo home run by Anthony Rizzo followed by a Judge infield single, Cora lifted him for reliever Ryan Brasier. Giancarlo Stanton, who wreaked havoc in that sweep at Fenway with three home runs, put a chill into the crowd with a drive that threatened to clear the Green Monster and tie the game.
Instead, it bounced back toward center and right to Kiké Hernandez, who cleanly gathered the carom and threw a strike to Bogaerts.
The three-time All-Star whirled and fired to catcher Kevin Plawecki, the throw breaking toward the third base side of home plate in a manner that would make a pitcher proud.
Out. Threat nullified.
“When we play defense,” says Cora, “we’re good. We want to be a good defensive team. We haven’t done that throughout the season.
“But that was a great play.”
Says Bogaerts: “That was better than a homer for me, personally. If that run scores, it’s 3-2. Stanton is at second base, the whole momentum is on their side.”
Instead, it is the Red Sox moving on, with a chance to topple the Rays and claim their second championship in four years, and fifth since 2004.
“Now we go to the next one,” says Cora, “and we’ve just got to be ready to face a great baseball team. We have a huge challenge.
“But we’re ready for it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boston Red Sox recapture swagger in wild-card win vs. New York Yankees