Nick Pivetta’s final pitch in Washington was a nasty one, and it froze Juan Soto where he stood. The Red Sox started to spill out of their dugout at Nationals Park a moment before Fielden Culbrith lifted his arm to make official both a 7-5 Red Sox victory and the perfect kick-start to the 2021 MLB playoffs.
Yankees. Sox. Fenway Park. Tuesday night.
Win and you stay in.
Forty-three years later, we get to do this all over again. Maybe the circumstances are slightly different — both teams, officially are playoff teams this time around while back in ’78, the loser was going to take home second-place money. But the feeling will be the same. The sentiment will be the same.
Win and stay in. Lose and winter’s coming a lot earlier than anyone wants.
Perfect. Just perfect.
“We kept grinding,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said when his team’s 7-5 victory over the feisty Nats was over, after they’d secured home field for the wild-card game, after the Sox had conspired with the Yankees to shut out the poor Blue Jays, winners of 91 games in a year when it took 92 to make it to the tournament.
“It hasn’t been easy at all,” Aaron Boone had said almost an hour earlier, after the Yankees had survived their own harrowing gauntlet, earning their own slice of October after surviving a 1-0 walk-off win against a Tampa Bay Rays team that had zero to play for this weekend and still managed to give the Yankees fits.
The first reaction is to say that nobody wants any part of the defending American League champs, that the Rays’ refuse-to-lose mindset is the last thing anyone wants to face in October. But the truth is the Rays are the Golden Ticket now. The winner of Tuesday’s hostilities will happily take the Wednesday-morning flight to Tampa-St. Pete.
But first things first.
“That’s going to be a fun game right there,” said the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, whose ninth-inning infield single scored Tyler Wade, allowing 40,409 people inside Yankee Stadium to exhale after 3 hours and 3 minutes of sheer tension and relentless anxiety. “They’ll bring their ‘A’ game and we’ll bring our ‘A’ game. We’re looking forward to it.”
The best part about how Tuesday came to be is that at the end, it turned out neither team backed into the matchup. Back in ’78, the Yankees had famously come back from 14 games behind to catch and pass the Sox by mid-September, but the Sox had to win their last eight games of the year to fight their way back into the play-off game.
Every game — every pitch — was supercharged with stress. And both teams had to keep winning.
The same thing happened here. After stumbling in Baltimore, the Sox needed to sweep the Nats, and did; after falling behind 5-1 Sunday they needed to figure out a way to come back and they did. The Yankees? The Rays’ refusal to cruise through a meaningless (for them) final weekend made things harder, but they preceded the weekend with a scorching 5-1 rip through the Sox and Jays (a streak that really stretched to eight of nine).
And while they weren’t really playing for their season Sunday — even if they’d lost, they’d have gotten the Jays on Monday in a play-in for the play-in — it sure felt like they were. Monday meant using Gerrit Cole a day earlier than preferable. Monday meant a one-game crapshoot to preface another crapshoot. They wanted no part of Monday.
Instead, they get Tuesday. They get the Sox, and the Sox get them, and once again they will battle, the way great fighters often do, for the championship of each other, a running storyline going back to 1949, one the Yankees used to own the deed to, one the Sox have lately kept in storage at Fenway.
They are both flawed teams who have spent wide swaths of this season looking as much like fourth-place teams as playoff clubs — yet both managed to peak at precisely the right time.
“We fought every day,” Cora said. “Every game.”
“We’re ready to take our shot,” Boone said. “We know we can beat anyone when we’re at our best.”
That shot will come Tuesday night, Fenway Park, one more chapter of an endless and timeless baseball saga, Yanks versus Sox, New York versus Boston. One game for the season. One game for a flight to Florida. One game. And, man, what a game.
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