The Red Sox had one job this weekend: Don't get swept. After Saturday night's Giancarlo Stanton haymaker to the temple, their task becomes all the more urgent:
DON'T GET BLEEPING SWEPT.
And so it comes down to this. The Red Sox, clearly the better team through July, now find themselves fighting for their lives vs. a Yankees club they have continuously failed to bury. With a victory in Sunday's finale, New York will complete a devastating Fenway sweep, vault a game ahead of the Red Sox in the wild card standings, and turn the last week into a must-win tour of Baltimore and Washington.
The Red Sox should be using that trip to rest regulars, align their rotation, and sharpen their bullpen for a one-game playoff and then hopefully a trip to Tampa and a date with the Rays in the American League Division Series.
Instead, they're scrambling after a blowout loss on Friday with Nathan Eovaldi delivering his worst start of the season, followed immediately by Stanton's mammoth grand slam in the eighth inning on Saturday that turned a potential 2-1 win into a demoralizing 5-3 loss.
And now the heat is on for Sunday's nationally televised finale.
"I think we've had a few of these this season," said manager Alex Cora. "We should be fine."
Maybe, but man did this one leave a mark. Reliever Tanner Houck actually struck out the first two batters of the eighth before losing his landing gear. He walked Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge and was lifted for left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez, who promptly drilled Anthony Rizzo in the knee.
Cora came to the mound and delivered Hernandez a stern talking-to, the kind of in-game tough love that has generally yielded results. Not this time. Hernandez center-cut a first-pitch fastball to Stanton and oh my God he did not miss, launching it 452 feet into orbit for the shocking, knee-buckling, potentially season-altering grand slam.
"We had Gardner with two strikes. We didn't put him away. We had Judge with two strikes, we didn't put him away," Cora said. "Darwinzon fell behind (Rizzo) right away, 2-0, had the swing and miss, and then he misfired. And then, fastball down in the zone and just got to him. A tough one, of course, but we have to show up tomorrow. We know where we're at, and be ready to play."
Added catcher Kevin Plawecki: "Baseball happened. Unfortunately, it didn't go our way. Stanton jumped on a first-pitch fastball and didn't miss it. That's just part of the game sometimes. It's unfortunate it had to happen tonight."
The Red Sox need baseball to happen in their direction on Sunday night, when Eduardo Rodriguez (gulp) opposes left-hander Jordan Montgomery. Because the Yankees and Blue Jays play each other next, the Red Sox are virtually guaranteed to gain ground on one of them over the next three days, provided they aren't swept by the Orioles. Barring an improbable run by the Mariners -- who were blown out by the Angels on Saturday to snap a six-game winning streak -- the wild card is coming down to a trio of teams in the AL East.
Win or lose on Sunday, the Red Sox remain in control of that race simply by the ease of their remaining schedule. But why leave anything to chance? They had one job coming into this series, and Sunday night will be their last chance to do it right.