This isn't 1978. No one choked down the stretch. One club wasn't even remotely supposed to be here and the other fought its way out of oblivion. Neither ultimately challenged the first-place Rays.
But a one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees remains an event. And when they meet in Tuesday's winner-take-all wild card game, they'll open the playoffs with what could be the marquee matchup of the postseason.
"There's a buzz here," said Yankees manager Aaron Boone of Fenway Park. "It matters here. It's fun to compete in games here. It's tough to compete in games here. I think there will be some tension, electricity, everything you could hope for in a winner-take-all game in the playoffs and two outstanding franchises and teams."
So how do the teams stack up? The Red Sox won the season series, 10-9, which is why they're hosting. But after winning the first seven matchups, the Red Sox lost the final six, including a late-September sweep at Fenway that nearly dashed their playoff hopes.
Let's break down the tale of the tape in a matchup that will pit All-Star right-handers Nathan Eovaldi and Gerrit Cole. We may not anoint this generation's Bucky Dent or Boone, but someone will still have the opportunity to play the hero.
The Yankees were built to mash in support of a suspect pitching staff, but the arms instead have carried a weak attack all season. Their lineup relies on twin behemoths Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who combined to hit .280 with an .894 OPS. The rest of the offense, as the New York Post noted, checked in at .228/.689.
Stanton was a one-man destroyer of worlds last weekend in Fenway, launching three homers and driving in 10 runs, including a game-winning grand slam. The Red Sox handled him during the 2018 playoffs with high fastballs, limiting him to four singles in 18 at-bats, and until last weekend he had done virtually no damage against them this season, either, hitting just one homer with four RBIs in 16 games.
The Red Sox have long considered Judge the more dangerous overall hitter, which they proved by walking him 10 times in 12 games. He's also a lifetime .400 hitter off Eovaldi with a homer.
|3rd in MLB||Average||23rd in MLB|
Still, there's just not much beyond these two to fear. Big deadline acquisition Joey Gallo can hit the ball a mile, but he's about six times as likely to whiff as leave the park and he batted just .161 with New York. After a quick start, fellow newcomer Anthony Rizzo contracted COVID and has delivered roughly average production. All told, the Yankees ranked 10th in the AL in runs, their worst showing in five years.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, ranked fourth in runs and top five in pretty much everything else other than steals. Rafael Devers is a game-changer, newcomer Kyle Schwarber is a proven playoff performer, Xander Bogaerts owns two rings, and on down the line it goes. Even if designated hitter J.D. Martinez can't go because of a sprained ankle, the Red Sox retain enough depth to field competitive at-bats virtually 1 through 9.
The Yankees cannot make that claim. They're going to rely either on their big boys to carry them, or their pitching to silence Boston's bats.
Edge: Red Sox
Neither one of these teams is great with the glove, but the Red Sox are awful. They led the American League in errors (108) and when Kiké Hernández doesn't play center, they can be below-average at every position on the diamond.
Issues abound. Bogaerts isn't blessed with great range at short and Devers can misfire on throws from third. First baseman Bobby Dalbec tends to pair hitting slumps with fielding ones, and he struggles with pop-ups near the seats.
Verdugo is an above-average left fielder but a below-average center fielder, and Hunter Renfroe has cost the Red Sox more runs with overruns and ill-advised throws than he has saved with his cannon of an arm, which has produced an impressive 16 assists.
Making matters worse, late-season sparkplug Jose Iglesias -- easily the team's best infield defender -- isn't postseason-eligible and thus can't start at second.
"We are who we are, we know that, but we didn't run into 92 wins just being lucky," Cora said. "We have a good baseball team. We have to keep working and it doesn't change. Hopefully we can get back to what we did before ten days ago, and play good defense and run the bases, as well."
The Yankees weren't much better for most of the season, especially with Gleyber Torres stinking up shortstop. Their defense improved, however, with the arrivals of Gold Glovers Gallo (left field) and Rizzo (first base), as well as a number of shifts around the infield.
They moved former Gold Glove second baseman D.J. LeMahieu to third base, and they booted Torres to second in favor of regular third baseman Gio Urshela, who is expected to play on Tuesday after bruising his thigh while making one of the catches of the year against the Rays on Sunday.
LeMahieu is out until at least the ALCS with a sports hernia, so the Yankees could move Urshela back to third and start Andrew Velazquez at short. Whatever they decide, their defense won't be great, but it's still better than Boston's.
Based on the zeroes at the end of their respective paychecks, this should be a mismatch. Cole remains the highest-paid pitcher in baseball at over $300 million, while Eovaldi is in the third season of a four-year, $68 million pact.
But both ranked among the best pitchers in the American League, each finishing top-five in WAR. Cole posted a 3.23 ERA in 181.1 innings with 243 strikeouts, while Eovaldi checked in at 3.75 in one more inning with 195 punchouts.
Each delivered a seven-run stinker in September, with Eovaldi's coming against the Yankees. But whereas the Yankees went just 3-3 in Cole's last six starts, the Red Sox were 5-1 with Eovaldi on the mound.
|Nathan Eovaldi||Stat||Gerrit Cole|
"He's been amazing all season," Cora said. "The way we structured our rotation towards the end, it was Chris (Sale) for 162, Nate for 163 or the wild card game. Here we are."
Eovaldi may lack Cole's overall pedigree, but leads him 1-0 in World Series championships. Both have pitched well in October -- Cole owns a 2.68 ERA in 13 starts while Eovaldi posted a 1.61 ERA during the 2018 playoffs -- but Cole has stumbled a bit down the stretch.
He still gets the edge on pure stuff, but it's not as big as it should be.
Here's the one matchup that isn't close. Peruse New York's WAR leaders and you'll find four relievers in the top 12 (five if you count swingman Nester Cortes Jr.) and only three hitters. The Red Sox, meanwhile, feature just one reliever in their top 12 in right-hander Garrett Whitlock (two if you count swingman Tanner Houck).
The Yankees might have finished below .500 without their bullpen. Unheralded hurlers like Jonathan Loaisiga (9-4, 2.17), Clay Homes (5-2, 1.61), and Chad Green (10-7, 3.12) have built a bridge to closer Aroldis Chapman, who seems to be regaining his overpowering form after a curiously terrible stretch from June through August that just happened to coincide with MLB cracking down on the use of illegal grip aids. The return of injured right-hander Luis Severino has only added to Boone's options.
Then there's Cora. Outside of Whitlock, who returned from an injured pectoral to throw a 1-2-3 inning in Sunday's finale, the Red Sox manager no longer can trust the pitchers who did the job for most of the season.
All-Star right-hander Matt Barnes has thrown only one clean inning in the last six weeks while working in mostly low-leverage situations. Primary setup man Adam Ottavino has been quietly terrible for months, posting a 6.10 ERA since the trade deadline while serving up five homers in just 20.2 innings. Stalwart left-hander Josh Taylor is back on the roster but hasn't pitched since Sept. 22 due to a back injury. Lefty Darwinzon Hernandez has thrown just once since serving up Stanton's go-ahead grand slam on Sept. 25.
The Red Sox led two of those games against the Yankees in the seventh inning and lost them both. Even if Cora turns to starters Eduardo Rodriguez or Nick Pivetta for an inning, he's still going to be in scramble mode, and that's before we get to the ninth, where wild thing Hansel Robles probably awaits.
Both of these guys deserve Manager of the Year consideration, even if neither will win it. Cora assured the Red Sox from day one of spring training that they were better than last year's last-place finish. He pushed the right buttons during the run to first place, then battened down the hatches to survive the storm of August when it looked like the Red Sox might capsize.
Boone, meanwhile, has masterfully deployed one of baseball's best bullpens while keeping his own team's head above water during the early months when New York's flawed, unathletic roster seemed doomed. An infusion of youth from Triple-A during a COVID outbreak helped the Yankees catch fire, and Boone remained unflappable despite playing in one of the game's most unforgiving markets.
They've both done well, but there's just something about Cora's unshakeable belief in his team. Sometimes it feels like their confidence is simply a manifestation of Cora's will, and that counts for something on a day when they'll be the underdogs at home.
Edge: Red Sox
The Red Sox deserved to finish ahead of the Yankees when all was said and done because they've played slightly better all season. In a one-game playoff, Boston's biggest weakness -- the bullpen -- might not mean as much if starters pick up a couple of innings.
This hasn't been the Yankees' year from the start, and even though they've handled the Red Sox recently, none of those games meant as much as this one. It's hard to envision a long postseason run for these Red Sox, but they've got enough to prevail here and take off for Tampa on Thursday.
Final score: Red Sox 5, Yankees 3