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Yankees vs. Red Sox 2021 Wild Card Game preview and prediction


Cole at Fenway

Cole at Fenway

A traditional rivalry that still has heat. A winner-take-all, give-your-fans-big-bragging-rights date in a grand, old ballpark. Two teams that have endured during challenging seasons. Big stars and aces.

This edition of Yankees-Red Sox could be something special, eh? Even if it is only one game, the AL Wild Card clash at Fenway Park Tuesday night, there’s sure to be plenty of theater. And history.

Speaking of which, we’ve seen this before, right? This will be the fifth time the teams are meeting in a do-or-die single game. Let your mind drift back to 1949, 1978, 2003 and 2004 and imagine the possibilities.

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That’s why this ain’t no rerun. We have no idea what marvels may await. Call it a remix instead, one that could give us a new rivalry hero/demon along the lines of Bucky F’in Dent, Aaron Boone (who’s involved in a different role than when he hit that homer in 2003) or David Ortiz.

Win and advance to an AL Division Series with the Rays. Lose and hit the golf course. In the Yankees’ case, blowing this game against Boston could turn their off-season into a referendum on their plan and their players.

Tons at stake. Here’s a look at who and what might tilt the game either way, plus a prediction at the end.

Biggest players, biggest game

Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton both have 10 homers since Sept. 1. Judge clinched the Yanks’ postseason trip with a walk-off single on Sunday and has been their best player all year. Stanton went wild during the Yankees’ key sweep at Fenway Sept. 24-26, homering in each game and driving in 10 runs while batting .583. He has a 1.103 OPS at Fenway this year. If he continues to mash against Boston pitching, what hope do the Red Sox have? Should Alex Cora even pitch to Stanton on Tuesday? Or Judge? It’s not like the Yankee offense (19th in MLB in runs, 13th in OPS) has been overwhelmingly impressive otherwise.

Which version of the ace shows up? (This goes for both teams!)

Gerrit Cole is a great pitcher, as evidenced by his AL-bests in wins (16) and K/BB ratio (5.93) and his 3.23 ERA and 243 strikeouts in 181.1 innings. But he’s coping with a hamstring injury, hasn’t been great against Boston this year (4.91 ERA) and has not pitched well in his last three starts overall (7.64 ERA, .988 opponent OPS). But take heart, Yankee fans — his one solid start in that stretch was a six-inning, three-run outing at Fenway (all three runs came on a Rafael Devers home run in the sixth inning, Cole’s last of the night). The Yankees look wise for not using Cole on short rest Sunday to try to avoid a potential play-in game. They didn’t need him and now he’s going on five days’ rest against Boston, which could help his hamstring. Meanwhile, Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi had been excellent against the Yankees all season — 2.01 ERA in his first five starts — but imploded during the sweep at Fenway. The Yanks pounced early and knocked him out in the third inning, hanging up seven runs. Stanton homered. Judge (.400) hits Eovaldi well; so does Anthony Rizzo (5-for-9, three doubles).

Sep 24, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) delivers against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning at Fenway Park.

Sep 24, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) delivers against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning at Fenway Park.

Miss me?

DJ LeMahieu is out with a sports hernia and Gio Urshela is banged up after landing in the dugout Sunday. Boston slugger J.D. Martinez has an ankle issue. Whichever lineup solves these issues might be the one that thrives. DJLM is a big loss. Even if he did not come close to duplicating his terrific first two seasons in pinstripes (his .711 OPS this year is 300 points lower than his mark in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season), he can still get on base and he’s not all-or-nothing, like some slots in the Yankee lineup. Plus, he’s a .324 hitter against Eovaldi. No Urshela would mean lots of infield patching for the Yanks. Martinez hit an MLB-best 42 doubles and also had 28 homers and is a patient, menacing presence in a terrific Boston lineup.

Close, but what?

The Yanks played 89 games this year that were decided by two runs or fewer, third-most in MLB. Will that matter Tuesday? Did they show us anything — guts, gumption, an innate ability to soar in tight spots — by going 55-34 (.618) in those games? Is it fair to even ask if it’s relevant in a one-game staredown?

Crisp RISP. And not-so-crisp RISP

The Yankees mostly-disappointing offense struggled with runners in scoring position. Now THAT is a rerun, especially after all their recent October troubles in that category. They were 28th in RISP OPS (.699) and 26th in RISP average (.238). Judge is an exception to the Yankees’ RISP woes, batting .331 with a .559 slugging in those situations. The Red Sox had a .792 RISP OPS (sixth) and batted .267 in such situations (fourth).

Oct 3, 2021; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) waves to the crowd after his game winning RBI single to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 and clinch a wildcard playoff spot at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 3, 2021; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) waves to the crowd after his game winning RBI single to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 and clinch a wildcard playoff spot at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

A great relief

The Yankees should have a bullpen advantage, even after a year packed with drama and injury for their relief corps. Over their final 12 games, the Yanks have a 1.84 relief ERA and have held opponents to a .196 average. Since the trade deadline, the remade-on-the-fly bullpen has a 2.97 ERA and overall, their 3.56 ERA is third in MLB. Clay Holmes (1.61 ERA, .458 opponent OPS as a Yankee) has been a revelation and Jonathan Loáisiga had 22 scoreless outings of four-plus outs this season, second in MLB to Boston’s Garrett Whitlock (24).

Prediction

Yankees, 5-4 (That score might sound familiar, if you were paying attention in ‘78). This is so achingly close. Both teams finished 92-70 this season. The Red Sox won the season series, 10-9, and outscored the Yankees by a single run, 75-74. But the Yankees won the last six games, including the much-needed sweep less than two weeks ago at Fenway. Cole gets the Yankees through at least five innings (beware of Devers, though; he’s got three lifetime homers off Cole) and Eovaldi does the same. The Yankees’ relief edge is key, though there are adrenalized moments when Aroldis Chapman tries to close (he’s hardly automatic, as your clenched gut reminds).

In the end, the Red Sox are careful with Judge and Stanton, maybe too careful, and, as has happened before, someone who’s not the biggest name around emerges with a clutch hit. Maybe someone who lost his job at shortstop, angered everyone by not hustling the other day, but has been hitting lately (.318 since Sept. 14)? And a new Boston epithet is born.

Gleyber F’in Torres, anyone?

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