The Red Sox win the AL East—the hard way

A champagne shampoo for the AL East champion Red Sox . . .

A champagne shampoo for the AL East champion Red Sox . . .

Nobody has ever accused the Red Sox of doing things the easy way. Why should clinching this year’s American League East be any different? Of course, the Red Sox don’t necessarily see it that way.

We didn’t play meaningful baseball games at the end of the year last year,” says David Price, moved to the bullpen of late after a few hiccups and elbow issues as a starter this year. “You play meaningful baseball games for 160 to 162 games, that keeps everybody on their toes.”

Price referred to last year’s short, nasty, and slightly brutish push out of the postseason when the Indians swept them three straight in a division series. They did go 12-5 to finish the season, but they pretty much had the division nailed early in that string no matter when clinch day came.

This time, they went almost to the wire to nail the division. And if the Red Sox don’t mind pushing a historical rivalry to one side for just a moment, they might want to lift a tall one and say, “To the Yankees, who kept us honest all the way to the end.” At least, as honest as one group of electronic sign-stealers can keep the other group of electronic sign-stealers can be kept.

Last year’s Yankees were converted almost overnight into a kid corps and were thought to be facing that year and this year in rebuild mode. This year’s Yankees said not so fast. Until this weekend, it was entirely possible that the Yankees could either pick the Red Sox pocket for the division or force a single game play-in to see who’d go to the wild card game and who’d wait until a division series.

The Yankees probably have no complaints about settling for the first American League wild card. Except that if they win the wild card game against the Twins, they get to tangle with the Indians in a division series. The Red Sox get a breather before dealing with the Astros in another division series.

You tell me who’s going to have a tougher time.

The Red Sox had to finish the regular season against the Astros, and they’ve split that set so far. The Astros pushed back hard enough Friday night to keep the Red Sox from an eleventh-minute comeback, something the Red Sox are rather good at doing this season.

So they settled for beating the Astros 6-2 Saturday, while the Yankees hung on to beat the Blues Jays 2-1. But the Yankees’ seasonal performance against the Indians isn’t quite that encouraging: after splitting a four-game set in mid-August, the Indians swept the Yankees for three early in that stupefying 22-game winning streak.

Both teams have had their problems this year. The Yankees survived to play at least once in October and maybe more; the Red Sox survived to play at least three to five in October and maybe more. Big maybe. The Astros don’t know the meaning of the word quit; the Indians seem to have forgotten how to lose entirely.

Who in Boston would have opened the season figuring Price wouldn’t pitch until Memorial Day, get into a nasty, pointless feud with Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley that only made Price look like a jerk, and miss another seven weeks with a post-Memorial Day elbow tear while he was at it?

Or, that Chris Sale would go from looking like Sandy Koufax most of the year—and punching out 300+ batters to prove it—to looking like Claude Osteen’s understudy down the stretch? Or, that old reliable Dustin Pedroia would spend three hitches on the disabled list, two involving the surgically-repaired left knee?

Or, that Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Hanley Ramirez would look like Lennie Merullo, Mario Mendoza, and Bud Harrelson at the plate, a big reason the Red Sox in Year One A.O. (After Ortiz) would score the least runs per postseason team? (A measly 4.86 average per game.)

Or, that two key relievers—Robbie Ross, Jr. and knuckleballer Steven Wright—would have season ending surgeries after offseason pen acquisition Tyler Thornburg’s season ended before it could begin thanks to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery?

Don’t ask general manager Dave Dombrowski.

“There are a lot of things that the club has overcome. But you have to tip your cap to guys that have stepped up,” he says, now that the Red Sox are AL East champs for a third year in a row. “Other people have done a really good job. Good leadership helps between John [Farrell, manager] and the coaching staff. But I can’t say you would’ve sat here and said, ‘I really love that scenario,’ by any means.”

Dombrowski was one of the guys who stepped up when he needed to step. He plucked Doug Fister, veteran starting pitcher, off the June waiver wire. He dealt for infield jack of most trades Eduardo Nunez and the Mets’ setup reliever Addison Reed in July. He dealt for Rajai Davis, the Indians’ World Series almost-hero, in August. And he called up prospect Rafael Devers ten days into his Triple A life—getting eight bombs, sixteen steaks in the kid’s first 77 major league at-bats.

Roll the dice? Dombrowski and the Red Sox rolled for the 7-10 split. They’ve already knocked down the seven. The ten is yet to be and it won’t go down easily no matter how the ball shoots the seven.

It’s not that the Yankees had it any simpler. In some ways, they really didn’t get up from the mats until the stretch drive, and that was when Aaron Judge was thought to be regressing for the season following his Home Run Derby championship at the All-Star break.

But no. The kid had to pick himself up, dust himself off, and bust Babe Ruth’s club record for bombs at home (32 and counting), smash the rookie record for American League home runs (he now has 51 and counting), and maybe steal a Most Valuable Player award that—absent Mike Trout, who missed too much time with a thumb fracture—looked like it was Jose Altuve’s for the taking.

That’s what a .391/.524/1.152 slash line in his last fourteen games, including ten bombs, 22 steaks, and seventeen runs scored does for you and your team.

“Certainly we have paid close attention to how consistently [the Yankees] have won and continue to win,” says Farrell. “They’re a good team. But I like the fact and love the fact that on nights where they’ve finished their games already and we’ve had to come back to maintain the spread, we’ve done it.”

The Yankees were five back of the Red Sox on 24 September. They’re 5-1 since. Farrell wasn’t the only one paying attention. And while the Yankees have had their individual hiccups, Greg Bird has come back to life after a slump and an ankle injury, and Gary Sanchez may just be the best young catcher in the league in the making you’re going to be watching next month.

“In a sense, they were elimination games for us,’’ says Yankee manager Joe Girardi of the 5-1 string. “We were five down coming home and our guys continued to play well and continued to play loose. They continued to make pitches and grind out at-bats. That was encouraging to me because it’s not like we had a chance to turn it off and I like that.”

They get two days to refresh for the wild card game, and hopefully a division set with the Indians they know isn’t going to be a walk in the ballpark.

Maybe it wasn’t the kind of finish that used to be part and parcel of the Yankee/Red Sox rivalry—the two going at each other at the last minute, usually with the Yankees ending up the last men standing—but I don’t hear either the Yankees or the Red Sox complaining. Yet.

The Red Sox have it easier. For now. Check all wristwatches, smartphones, and Fitbits at the gates. And lift a tall one to the Yankees, Red Sox. They did their part to get you here. Just one. It won’t hurt.

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