The worst part of the latest lost weekend at the hands of the Yankees isn't that it cost the Red Sox the playoffs. It did no so such thing. They remain best positioned not only to reach the wild card game, but host it.
What's aggravating is the opportunity the Red Sox squandered. They had a chance to outright win the wild card, eliminate the Yankees, and spend the last week of the season making sure everyone was properly rested and positioned for the AL's winner-take-all affair a week from Tuesday.
Instead, the moment appeared too big for them, just as it did all weekend. They blew their second straight eighth-inning lead, allowed their third straight titanic game-altering home run from Giancarlo Stanton, and will now limp into the final week of the season against the lowly Orioles and Nationals after New York completed the sweep with a 6-3 victory.
"It's not what we wanted coming into this series," acknowledged manager Alex Cora. "We wanted to win the series and keep that first wild card, but it didn't happen. But we're still in a position to make the playoffs. So that's not the worst-case scenario."
That's technically true, but it misses the point. The Red Sox appear ill-equipped to compete against the best teams in the American League, and this series did nothing to assuage those concerns.
The Red Sox are 17-6 against teams with losing records since the July 30 trade deadline, but only 8-21 against teams with winning records. Because they end the season with O's and Nats, they'll almost certainly pad that first number. But how can we have any confidence in them against the Yankees, Jays, Mariners, or Rays when we know the second?
"Ultimately even though it was a disappointing weekend for us, we still have it in our hands moving forward," said reliever Adam Ottavino, who surrendered the go-ahead hit and then Stanton's third home run in as many days. "If the season ended today, we'd be in. So all we have to do is take care of our job against Baltimore and Washington and see where that leaves us. Can't get too discouraged off it, in the big picture, as much as it hurt tonight. Just try to move forward."
Red Sox fans of a certain age know what it means to back into the playoffs. The 1988 Morgan Magicians lost their last three games and six of their last seven before being swept by the A's in the playoffs. Two years later, they nearly blew a 6.5-game lead in September, surviving on the final day when Tom Brunansky made a sliding catch in the right field corner to beat the White Sox. The A's summarily swept that team, too.
The Red Sox end the weekend a game behind the Yankees in the wild card race and a game ahead of the Jays. As long as they take care of business against the Orioles, they're guaranteed to gain ground one of their AL East rivals. And because they squeaked out each season series, 10-9, they own the tie-breakers over the Yankees and Jays, too.
Those facts feel like consolation prizes at the moment, though.
"We still have a wild card spot," Cora said. "We know that the Jays and the Yankees are playing against each other. So for how big this weekend was, I think Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, they're probably bigger, because we know that somebody is going to lose in the next three games and you can gain ground. So you've just got to make sure you're locked in Tuesday and start playing good baseball. It's not that we played bad baseball over the weekend. We just got beat."
If only it were that simple. No matter how well the Red Sox play over the next week, these three games are the closest to playoff intensity they're going to see until the real thing, and they just weren't good enough.