If the Red Sox hang on to the Wild Card lead and make the playoffs, the first inning of last night’s doubleheader nightcap will be remembered as the point at which the Sox hit rock bottom before finally showing signs of life. Boston had already lost the first two games of their series with the Yankees, while the Rays had pulled to within a half game in the standings. The day had begun with what could technically be called a Yankees rally in Game One, but was really more of a collection of bunts, stolen bases, passed balls, and wild pitches that led to two runs. And then Game 2 began in similarly ugly fashion: Mark Teixeira, after driving in two runs with a long double, scored on a throwing error by Jason Varitek. Red Sox Nation surely felt like they’d seen this game before.
Then momentum began to shift a bit: John Lackey (who apparently had some other things on his mind last night) settled down, Boston scored some runs of their own (eventually taking the lead before the Yankees tied the score in the seventh), and their bullpen began to throw scoreless inning after scoreless inning.
It’s here we’ll say this about the Yankees’ past week: No one can accuse them of mailing in the final games of the regular season, even though their playoff spot was all but guaranteed long ago. They took three of four from Tampa Bay last week, then won the first two games of this series with Boston, the team that had their number earlier in the season.
But Joe Girardi was not desperate: He stuck to his guns and gave regulars like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Russell Martin the night off, even as the game dragged on and pinch-hitting situations emerged. (They’d played in the first game, and Girardi was worried that calling on someone who wasn’t warmed up and hadn’t expected to play could lead to an injury. It’s the kind of decision you get to make when your team has already clinched everything there is to clinch.)
Meanwhile, Terry Francona stuck with Jonathan Papelbon for two and a third innings, and his bullpen extended the game to the point where Girardi summoned Scott Proctor from the bullpen in the top of the fourteenth, surely to the dismay of any Rays fans following along online. What happened next was more or less inevitable: a single, a walk, a fly out, and a three-run Jacoby Ellsbury home run that gave the Red Sox a 7-4 lead.
Boston couldn’t have gotten much closer to seeing the gap between themselves and the Rays disappear entirely: The Yankees had the winning run on third in the ninth, and again in the thirteenth, and didn’t score. And now Red Sox Nation can come back from the ledge just a little bit: They have a one-game lead with three to go, and the Rays play the Yankees while they get the Orioles. (It’s worth noting here that Baltimore did just take three of four at Fenway last week.) The Red Sox would have controlled their own destiny even if they’d lost last night, but now, if they win out, they’ll secure a postseason spot without the need for a one-game playoff. This weekend was bad for the Sox, but it could have been even worse.