By John Terhune
Boston University News Service
Maybe next year, Team Chaos.
So little separated the American League’s playoff hopefuls after 161 games, baseball fans were forced to spend the weekend pouring over obscure tie-breaker rules and drafting dizzying spreadsheets.
Entering the final afternoon of the regular season, two-, three-, and even four-way ties remained in play as the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and Mariners scrapped for two Wild Card berths.
On social media, some neutral fans hoped that Boston or New York would slip up and allow one or both of the challengers to tie their total of 91 wins on the season’s final day. Such a result, which could have forced games 163 and 164 on Monday and Tuesday, even before the Wild Card game, would have been madness like we’ve never before seen under the current playoff format.
But it was not to be. Though shaky performances on Sunday surely had fans’ hearts in their throats, the frontrunners both secured late wins, closing the door on the upstarts and punching their tickets to the postseason. Chaos gave way, leaving us instead with one of the most ancient and elemental matchups in American sports.
The Red Sox will host the Yankees at Fenway Park on Tuesday night. The winners will earn a date with the Tampa Bay Rays in the Division Series. The losers will go home as just another casualty of baseball’s bloodiest rivalry.
How they got here
No matter what happens on Tuesday, Boston has already exceeded expectations this season. After the Red Sox finished 24-36 during the abridged 2020 season, good for their worst winning percentage since 1965, few experts predicted the team would compete in 2021.
Instead, it was their archrivals from New York who were supposed to breeze into the playoffs for the fifth year in a row. Vegas set the Yankees win total at an absurd 95.5, while all 37 members of ESPN’s panel picked the team to make the postseason. Not one picked Boston.
But then a funny thing happened – the Red Sox won nine of its first 12 games to race to the top of the division. In fact, led by its elite middle of the order bats and surprisingly stout starting pitching, Boston just kept winning through the first half of the season, while New York’s massive sluggers struggled to generate runs.
On July 5, the Red Sox sat alone at the top of the division, 4.5 games clear of the Rays and a whopping 10.5 games ahead of the vaunted Yankees. There was still a lot of baseball to play, but Boston’s early-season dominance had earned it a sizable cushion in the AL pennant race.
As it turned out, it would need every bit of that cushion. The team’s earned run average ballooned to 4.90 in August. A 2-10 summer swoon, exacerbated by Matt Barnes’ sudden transformation from shutdown closer to cannon fodder, left Boston suddenly far behind Tampa for the division lead and just ahead of surging Toronto and New York in the Wild Card race.
Just when the team needed all hands on deck, a uniquely 2021 disaster struck; a dozen members of the Red Sox, including stars Xander Bogaerts, Kiké Hernández and Chris Sale, missed time after a Covid outbreak tore through the locker room.
Yet, Boston stayed afloat as unlikely reinforcements José Iglesias and Travis Shaw provided several key plays, and streaky sluggers Hunter Renfroe and Bobby Dalbec took turns carrying the offense.
With nine games left in the season, Boston appeared finally to have outlasted New York and Toronto, who sat two and three games back respectively. Fangraphs put Boston’s playoff chances at almost 98%.
Then the Yankees, led by the revitalized Giancarlo Stanton, came to town and dismantled the Red Sox in three straight games to climb into the Wild Card lead. The blow staggered Boston, which proceeded to lose two-of-three to the last place Orioles, further jeopardizing their postseason chances.
Only a clutch, though thoroughly unconvincing sweep of checked-out Washington, along with late stumbles by the Yankees, Jays and Mariners allowed Boston to claim the top Wild Card spot by the slimmest of margins: their 10-9 head-to-head record against New York.
Despite all the chaos of the pennant race, the two clubs still standing are the pair that always seem to be there in the end. Now, just like in 1949, 1978, 2003 and 2004, the Red Sox and Yankees will play a winner-take-all game.
In part two, writer John Terhune will explore the upcoming matchup between these two historic titans, as well as the possible x-factors and more! Stay tuned!