The Red Sox made the playoffs the easy way, but they did it the hard way.
A season marked by equal parts "never-say-die" and "do-they-even-want-this-thing?" reached its only logical conclusion on Sunday, with the Red Sox overcoming a 5-1 deficit to beat the Nationals and set a date with the Yankees in Tuesday's wild-card game at Fenway Park.
A day that began with the possibility of chaos instead ended with straightforward order, the Red Sox and Yankees each winning and rendering the actions of the Blue Jays (win) and Mariners (loss) irrelevant.
That doesn't mean it was a breeze. The Yankees beat the Rays 1-0 on a walk-off single by Aaron Judge. The Red Sox didn't pull this one out until Rafael Devers slammed a two-run homer in the ninth to break a 5-5 tie and avoid a one-game play-in with the Blue Jays on Monday.
"They worked so hard to get to this point," said manager Alex Cora, "and they didn't get denied."
You couldn't find a better stand-in for their season as a whole than Game 162. The Red Sox didn't just embrace adversity this season, they often conjured it into existence. Left-hander Chris Sale, unavailable until August while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, departed after walking in a run in the third. Slugging DH J.D. Martinez left with a sprained ankle after tripping on the second base bag while jogging out to right field. Former starter Garrett Richards loaded the bases in the fifth and couldn't quite pitch himself out of trouble. Cora had already warned his starting pitchers to have their spikes ready, and he used Eduardo Rodriguez for a perfect inning of relief and Nick Pivetta to nail down the save, the final pitch a rollercoaster curveball to freeze NL MVP candidate Juan Soto that Pivetta termed a perfect 80 on the scouting scale.
In between, the Red Sox relied on the "big boys" who have paced the offense all season. Devers smacked a pair of homers, giving him 38. Kyle Schwarber and Xander Bogaerts singled to start the game-tying rally in the seventh. Alex Verdugo then knotted things at 5-5 with a double to the gap.
"We just never gave up," Verdugo said. "We kept fighting. We kept fighting. We blocked out all the haters. Blocked out all the outside noise, whatever people were saying, because at the end of the day we could be the best team expected to win or the worst team expected to lose, you still have to go out there and play for 27 outs and give it your all. Anything can happen. I ride with these guys."
Now the Red Sox advance to host the Yankees at 8:08 p.m. on Tuesday in a winner-take-all wild card game. The last time these two teams met in such a situation came in 1978, and we all know how that one bleeping ended.
This time around, the Red Sox have little to lose. Projected to win around half their games and not be a factor in the American League East, they instead won 92 and finished second, outlasting a Yankees club that expected to contend for a title and a Blue Jays squad with a punishing offense that sprang just enough holes in its bullpen to finish one game out of the postseason.
"That's why I didn't talk about scenarios," Cora said. "Taking a book from Tito (Francona), I'm not that smart. When this thing was in our hands, you win and you're in, you believe in the team. You believe in the group. It didn't look promising at the beginning, but you still feel like, yeah, we have a shot. Avoiding all that mess, great. Now we've got the Yankees at home."
It will be Gerrit Cole vs. Nathan Eovaldi on Tuesday, and the Yankees will be looking to win their seventh straight against the Red Sox after dropping 10 of the first 13 matchups. They just swept Boston at home last weekend and will probably be favored, which is exactly how the Red Sox like it.
"They've done an amazing job against us in the second part of the season," Cora said. "We all know the numbers. We all know what they did to us two weekends ago. We'll be ready. It should be fun. I think baseball enjoys it."
Just a guess, but that game will probably come down to the final at-bat, too. It's just what the Red Sox do, and now they're going to get to do it in October.