At least we got an inning. Up until the bottom of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, baseball’s division series round hadn’t exactly given fans their fill of October drama. Two series had already ended in three-game sweeps; Houston over Cleveland, Milwaukee making quick work of Colorado. The Atlanta Braves bowed out quietly, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games And the Boston Red Sox were about to close out the series with their bitter division rivals, the New York Yankees, in four.
Boston’s victory felt all but inevitable. The Red Sox took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth of Game 4. The Yankees hadn’t even mustered a hit the prior three innings. On Monday night, Boston destroyed the Yankees by a mammoth 16-1, to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Boston’s closer, the bearded, flame-throwing right-hander Craig Kimbrel — who hunches over and dangles his right arm like a bat’s wing before every pitch — was on the mound. New York was headed home.
But then the tension of the ninth inning escalated, entirely out of the blue. And unless you’re a die-hard Boston fan who just wanted three quick outs and a Sam Adams to celebrate, the theater was utterly delightful.
First Aaron Judge walked on four pitches. The nearly 50,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, woken by glimmer of hope, roared. Then Didi Gregorius singled. First and second, no outs, and the tying run — 6’6″, 245-pound slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who makes $25 million to blast prodigious home runs that tie up playoffs games and send Yankees fans into a state of ecstasy, was up at the plate.
Stanton took two long, lame swings at Kimbrel’s knuckle-curve balls on his way to a strikeout.
That took some air out of Yankee Stadium. But Kimbrel then issued another four-pitch walk, to first baseman Luke Voit, to load up the bases with one out. Forgive Yankees fans if they started booking train tickets to Boston for a deciding Game 5. Kimbrel was losing it on the mound. And his situation got worse moments later, when he plunked Neil Walker, sending Judge home, shaving another run off of Boston’s lead — it was now 4-2 — and keeping the bases very loaded with Yankees.
How was this happening? Now, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, who hit ghastly .186 during this year, had a chance to redeem his frustrating regular season campaign with one swing. He fell behind 0-2, then worked the count full, before hacking at a 98 mph Kimbrel fastball, and sending the ball flying into left field.
The shot sounded mighty good off the bat. Game over? Walk-off grand slam? Some of the Red Sox, however, knew better.
“When it came off the bat, the launch angle was too high,” says Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi, channeling a favorite metric of baseball’s geek analytic chattering class. “That was one of the higher pop-ups I’ve ever caught. Thank God it stayed in.”
Benintendi caught the ball on the warning track; Gregorius scored from third on the sacrifice fly, and the Yankees cut the lead to 4-3. But Boston got its second out; and the next batter, Gleyber Torres, hit a slow roller to third.
Slow enough to keep the season alive? Boston third baseman Eduardo Nunez charged in and fired the ball the first. Boston’s Steve Pearce stretched, barely keeping his foot on the bag. First base umpire Fieldin Culbreth called Torres out; Boston players began to embrace in front of the mound. The Yankees did their dude diligence and challenged the call. Replay confirmed Culbreth’s hunch, and Boston’s celebration properly commenced.
“That was weird,” says Boston second baseman Brock Holt, a master of understatement.
Boston whooped it up on the Yankee Stadium field, just like the Red Sox did in the last time these teams met in the playoffs — in 2004, when the Red Sox came back from an insurmountable 0-3 deficit, putting the Bronx to shame en route to the team’s first Word Series since 1918. As the Red Sox filed into a champagne-soaked clubhouse, a Yankee stadium attendant refused to hide his frustration in an empty hallway behind the visitors dugout. He simultaneously decried his team’s misfortune in the ninth inning, and baseball’s overall emphasis on the power game.
“We had every opportunity,” the attendant shouted. “But those a–holes had to go for the home run ball.” Presumably Stanton’s strikeout, and Sanchez’s long out, left this observer dissatisfied. “Just put the ball in play! You don’t have to go for the f—ing home run every time. That’s what Sanchez was doing. Going for the f—ing home run.”
The Yankees smacked 267 home runs this regular season, a new record for a single team. But they hit zero long balls in their two home playoff game losses to the Red Sox. Boston starting pitcher Rick Porcello, the 2016 Cy Young Award winner who grew up across the Hudson River in New Jersey, held the Yankees to a single run in five innings. (He grew up a Mets fan). Veteran ace C.C. Sabathia, one of only three holdovers from New York’s last World Series team in 2009, got himself in trouble in the third inning, with no score, first by hitting Benintendi with a pitch. A Pearce single moved Benintendi to third; J.D. Martinez drove Benintendi home with a sacrifice fly. Sabathia got the second out on a grounder, but Ian Kinsler’s double sailed over the head of left fielder Brett Gardner — the second holdover from the last Yankees World Series team, nine years ago. Gardner seemed to misjudge the ball: catching Kinsler’s rope would have been a difficult task regardless, but Gardner’s footwork did him no favors. Boston led 2-0.
Once again, New York Yankees left a starting pitcher in the game longer than the fans wanted. On Monday, Boone left Luis Severino in a game in which he was clearly struggling: Boston commenced with an onslaught. Here, David Robertson — the third Yankee who played for the 2009 champions — was warming up in the bullpen. But Boone stuck with Sabathia: he rewarded his manager by giving up another run on a Eduaro Nunez line drive single. 3-0 Boston. Boone’s decisions give New York’s always rational fans sports talk grist for an entire off-season, if not more. Though when Boone finally called in a reliever, Zach Britton, to start the fourth, he gave up a lead-off home run to Christian Vazquez that gave Boston a 4-0 advantage. As if to stick it to the Yanks a bit, the Red Sox called on their best starting pitcher, Chris Sale, to shut down the Yankees in the eighth inning: he retired the side in order, before handing the ball over to Kimbrel for the unforgettable ninth.
In the Red Sox locker room after the game, a Boston player sprayed Budweiser on Sale. “Check out my cutter!” he said, angling the alcohol. The team blasted “New York, New York,” in the clubhouse, an expert bit of trolling of Judge, who blared the song outside Boston’s clubhouse after New York won Game 2 of the series at Fenway Park — the team’s only victory of the playoffs against Boston.
So now Boston moves on to face defending champ Houston — who swept Cleveland in the other American League Division Series — in the League Championship Series. For baseball nerds, Houston-Boston is a scintillating match-up of the sport’s two best teams this season. While the Red Sox won 108 regular season games, the Astros — those geniuses, dare we say — weren’t far behind, as they tallied 103 victories. Over in the National League, the surprising Milwaukee Brewers have won 11 games in a row; it’ll be up to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who after a slow start through May have played like the team that was just one game away from a World Series victory a year ago, to stall Milwaukee’s momentum.
The four teams left are the class of baseball. When it comes to high-stakes drama, the early rounds may have just offered that ninth inning in the Bronx. But the nice part: October’s just begun.
Correction, Oct. 10:
The original version of this story misstated the result of the Los Angeles Dodgers-Atlanta Braves division series. The Dodgers won the series in four games, not three.