It was a stretch for the Red Sox to win

This was the kind of thing that used to mean the Red Sox's doom rather than the Red Sox's advance. The 63 seconds it took to confirm the final out of their American League division series wrestle with the Yankees Tuesday night once would have seemed like 63 hours. And the final result, once upon a time, would have meant yet another Red Sox catastrophe when they were that close to moving toward if not claiming the Promised Land. 

Even with three previous World Series conquests in the 21st Century, Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce's stretch to snap third baseman Eduardo Nunez's throw across the infield to get Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres for the final out, falling to his chest while trying to keep his foot on the pad, after Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel's near-meltdown earlier in the inning, couldn't be simple.

Not even after dodging an atomic bomb after Gary Sanchez, the Yankees' often-struggling catcher, nearly helped to force a fifth game with a long blast that looked like a grand slam until it fell short enough for Andrew Benitendi to haul it down on the left field warning track for one of the hardest-earned second outs the Red Sox have ever gotten.


Finally, Mike Winters, the chief of Tuesday night's umpiring crew, removed his headset after the review of the Torres grounder and Pearce stretch and gave the signal. The Red Sox had their ticket to meet the Astros in the American League Championship Series, and the Yankees had as bitter a taste of defeat as a very different Red Sox team gave them in the 2004 ALCS.

It was one thing to blow the Yankees out on their own grounds the way the Red Sox did in Game 3. A Game 4 ending in a ninth-inning hair-raiser and in the Red Sox's favor on enemy territory was something else entirely. 

Taking a division series tied at a game apiece into their home grounds had the Yankees feeling as though destiny was in their hands. Losing two straight on those home grounds to their staunchest rivals was something these Yankees didn't expect. Not even if former Yankee star Mark Teixiera proved right when he argued that Aaron Judge, trolling the Red Sox after winning Game 2 in Fenway Park by letting "New York, New York" blast out of his boombox when leaving the clubhouse, awoke a sleeping giant.

"Aaron Judge has no rings," Teixiera said the morning after on an ESPN radio show. "And I have a ton of respect for Aaron Judge, I think he will have rings. But when you boast — when you wake a sleeping giant in Boston — on your way out back to Yankee Stadium, and then get your butts kicked two games in a row, I just think that you might want to let your bat do the talking. Because Aaron Judge's bat will talk."

Judge's bat kept its big mouth shut in the final two division series games, the tall right fielder going 1-for-7 with a walk and a strikeout over the pair, after his moonshot in Game 2 helped the Yankees to a 6-2 win in Fenway Park and a comparable bomb closed the Yankees' Game 1-losing deficit to 5-4. In fact, these Yankees who hit a record 267 home runs on the regular season played the last 54 outs of this division series without once reaching the seats. And they weren't exactly built to create many runs other than by power.

"It was a grind," Judge said Tuesday night about the Yankees' season. "Guys battling injuries, battling slumps, battling this and that. It was just another baseball season, and we know we came up short of our goal, and now it's just time to build off that and get ready for next year."

"I thought we were going to come back and win," said Yankee first baseman Luke Voit after Game 4. "Everyone in the stadium, everyone in the dugout was going crazy. It's what makes baseball so great. You can get so close, but it stabs you in the heart at the end of the day." Now he knows how generations of Red Sox Nation felt before the turn of the century, and even in October 2003.

The Yankee who broke the Red Sox heart that month now manages the Empire Emeritus. Aaron Boone's eleventh-inning, Game Seven, 2003 ALCS-winning home run off Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield entered him into the halls of Yankee folk heroes and Red Sox folk devils. That was then, this is now. The unlikely Yankee manager who took the bridge in spring training now faced one of the bitterest defeats in Yankee history. 

And, questions about whether his slow hook proved the Yankees' undoing. In Game 3, Boone stayed with his starting pitcher Luis Severino despite the right-hander having less than his top repertoire, until the Red Sox loaded the bases on him in the fourth with nobody out and a 3-0 lead. The Red Sox unloaded for seven of their sixteen runs in the game in that inning alone. In Game 4, Boone stayed likewise with his starter CC Sabathia, who'd pitched into and out of trouble in the first two innings but just as clearly didn't have what remained of his best stuff by the time he opened the third with a plunk on Benitendi.

Then, with a steady diet of right-handed Red Sox coming to face Sabathia for the second time in the game, the left hander was dismantled a base hit up the pipe (Pearce), a sacrifice fly (J.D. Martinez) giving the Red Sox a 1-0 lead, a ground out right back to the box (Xander Bogaerts), an RBI double over Yankee left fielder Brett Gardner's head (Ian Kinsler), and an RBI single floated over third baseman Neil Walker's head (Nunez). The Yankee bullpen didn't even stir until David Robertson got up to get warm after the last pitch to Bogaerts.

It was one thing not to want to burn the best of his bullpen while getting blown out in Game Three, but with Sabathia already in and out of early trouble in a win-or-be-gone game, and that line of right-handed Red Sox looming at the plate while Sabathia continued leaving pitches too far over the plate, why didn't Boone — whose bullpen was one of the American League's tightest all season long, as compared to the Red Sox's pasted-by-band-aids bullpen — have right handers Robertson or Dellin Betances up, throwing, and ready to go at the first sign of third inning trouble?

Getting Jackie Bradley, Jr. to end it with a ground out and the Red Sox with a mere 3-0 lead was probably the best stroke of fortune the Yankees had all Game Four, even including the hair-raising ninth.

Finally Boone opened the bullpen to open the fourth — with another left hander, Zach Britton, who hasn't exactly been as lights-out as he once was on many a day closing for the Orioles. The same Zach Britton whom Buck Showalter refused to bring in to face Edwin Encarnacion with the 2016 wild card game on the line in the bottom of the eleventh, leaving Ubaldo Jimenez in to serve Encarnacion a three-run homer Baltimore and Toronto alike won't forget.

Britton's first assignment was Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez, a right-handed hitter. The lefty's sinker had no sink this time. He got away with leaving one over the plate for a called strike one. On 2-1 Britton left the same pitch over the meat of the plate, and Vasquez sank it the other way behind the right field fence. It was Britton's only blemish; he worked two solid innings otherwise before handing off to Robertson and, in due course, Betances.

Red Sox starter Rick Porcello mostly had his way with the Yankees over five innings, the Yankees' only run coming on a ground rule double (Sanchez), an infield single (Torres), and a sacrifice fly (Gardner). Red Sox relievers Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier each erased the Yankees in order in their single innings of work. Then, Red Sox manager Alex Cora acquiesced and let one of his starters, Chris Sale, work an inning, and Sale made very short work of Torres (fly out to center), pinch hitter Andrew McCutchen (for Gardner; ground out to third), and Aaron Hicks (called strikeout).

Then came the ninth. Then came Kimbrel. Then came the bases loaded on a leadoff walk to Judge, a base hit by Didi Gregorius, a strikeout on Giancarlo Stanton, and a walk to Voit. Then came Kimbrel's unlikely plunk on Walker, a curve ball that sailed in low and all the way inside the batter's box. And Sanchez's sacrifice fly, closing the deficit to 4-3.

But then came Torres on 1-2 whacking a four-hop dead fish toward third with Nunez charging it and throwing on the run. Then came Pearce's stretch to grab the throw the split second before his stretch belly-flopped him to the dirt as Torres shot by. Then came Kimbrel and Vasquez hugging and dancing at the mound to celebrate while then also came the review. And about a dozen television replays, every one of which showed Pearce kept his foot on the pad and caught the Nunez throw just before Torres's foot hit the base. 

And then came Winters's cocked fist affirming the out, the Red Sox win, and the Red Sox trip to the ALCS where a team full of Astros hungering for a World Series repeat awaits them.

Boone will be questioned regarding his managerial inexperience in stepping up and forth with bigger games than the regular season, but then his Red Sox counterpart Cora was just as inexperienced entering the season. "Definitely frustrating," said the man who once frustrated Boston for one more year. "Credit to them for being able to hold us down. But you don't move on usually when you can't get enough big hits. They just out-played us a little bit."


Yet Cora looked like a genius over Games 3 and 4. He sat Kinsler in favor of Brock Holt for Game 3 — and Holt became baseball's first to hit for the cycle in a postseason contest. He re-inserted Kinsler for Game 4 and got a key RBI double for it. He installed Vasquez behind the plate despite Vasquez's not having worked with Porcello all season long — and Vasquez hit his first home run since June 26 for what proved the game-winner.

"None of these games are easy," said Barnes in the middle of the celebratory champagne showers. "We're going to have many more years of fighting this division with [the Yankees]."

Then came the Red Sox — who'd also clinched the American League East in Yankee Stadium on 20 September — busting out the champagne in the Stadium's visiting clubhouse. And, blasting the Frank Sinatra recording of "New York, New York" in that clubhouse as an obvious retort to Judge's Fenway troll. Brother, did they ever earn that, even if they did it in often typical Red Sox fashion ... the hard way.

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