WASHINGTON — One game to go, and the Red Sox suddenly hold all the cards in this mad scramble known as the American League Wild Card race.
Following a stress-filled, 5-3 victory over the Nationals on Saturday, the Sox now have this satisfying reality heading into Sunday: They win that game, and they will host the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
This, after the Yankees lost for the second straight day at home to the Rays. Boston and New York hold identical 91-70 records, but the Red Sox own the tiebreaker by virtue of beating their rivals, 10-9, in the season series. The Blue Jays (90-71) and Mariners (89-71, and playing later on Saturday) both remain right in the thick of things, poised to create havoc on the last day if the Red Sox and/or Yankees give them the chance.
“Total team effort,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “It wasn’t easy. It hasn’t been easy the whole season. The fact that we know that tomorrow counts, it’s gratifying.”
To get to such an enviable spot, the Red Sox rode a game-breaking, much-needed rally in the top of the ninth, sparked by a two-out RBI triple by Christian Vázquez that snapped a 1-1 tie.
“Christian, he’s a gamer,” said Cora. “One thing about Christian, he hits good pitching late in games. He’s been here a while; he’s a World Series champ. What he did here today behind the plate was amazing.”
The big moments in that final frame came moments after Boston lost a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth on Juan Soto’s deep fly ball to center against Austin Davis that fortunately stayed in the park for a sacrifice fly instead of a grand slam.
“Yeah, it was scary,” said Vázquez. “Thank God it stayed in the ballpark. I take that over a four-run homer. So it was a big pitch there, up in the zone, but it was a big out for us.”
The intensity built during that Soto-Davis sequence. Three times during the at-bat, Soto asked for time. Davis hollered at him. Soto tried to answer with his bat. And nearly did.
“I just thought, ‘He’s lucky.’” said Soto. “I mean, I hit it pretty good, just a little bit too high and maybe a little bit up on my barrel. But yeah, I was praying for it to keep going, but it didn’t. I just tried to make good contact, but he started talking trash to me and my mindset just changed to kick his ass. He just got me mad, and I don’t like when [pitchers] talk trash to me.”
The Red Sox survived the terrifying Soto by a few feet and will be fully mindful of perhaps the best hitter in the National League again on Sunday.
They hope they can breathe a little easier than on Saturday — a day Cora got clutch relief from a variety of arms, most notably Ryan Brasier, who escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh even as he worked for the fourth-straight day for the first time in his career.
For Brasier, who endured the death of his father in February and then a barrage of injuries from Spring Training into the season and didn’t make his 2021 debut until Sept. 3, he’s thrilled that he’s been able to carry such a big load for his team in recent days.
“Somebody asked me if I needed a day [off],” said Brasier. “I said I’ve had five months worth of days. I am more than ready to keep it going and keep pitching in these situations and taking the ball whenever they need me to.”
After losing two out of three in Baltimore against the last-place Orioles, it seemed unlikely the Red Sox could get back in the drivers’ seat. But with a pair of crucial wins against the Nationals, they’ve done just that.
On Saturday, the Sox received five perfect innings from rookie righty Tanner Houck, who struck out eight and threw 53 pitches.
Without hesitation, Cora pulled his talented starter with the perfecto in progress because he knows that the pennant race and Houck’s long-term health were more important than a chance for a personal milestone.
“I didn’t struggle at all [with the decision],” said Cora. “He threw [41 pitches on Tuesday] and today, actually, the plan was to see where Soto was and see where we went. He did an amazing job.
“It’s one of those I was telling Bobby [Dalbec] like in the sixth or seventh inning, as a manager you want to manage with your heart, but you have to be smart, too. It might look bad outside our world, but the kid threw 40-something pitches the other day and today it felt like that was good enough for us to give us a chance to win. I’m glad we ended up winning the game.”
Now, it’s on to Sunday, when ace Chris Sale will start as Boston tries to punch its ticket to the postseason on the final day of the regular season.
No matter what happens, Sunday won’t be the final game of the season for the Red Sox. They can do no worse than be in some type of tie after Game No. 162.
“It feels great,” said Cora. “Obviously it wasn’t a great week, but we’re in this position right now. We’ve got the right guy and we’ve got to show up tomorrow and win. Do that, hop on that plane, go home, back to our families and be ready for whatever happens this week.”