October 3, 2021
I’ve been a Red Sox fan for 33 years now, and 2021 has probably been the most emotionally polarizing season of my life.
Most years when your team is in the thick of a playoff race feel like a rollercoaster simply due to the nature of the baseball season. Unless your team sucks, you watch them go through so many highs and lows, streaks and slumps, starts and stops over the course of a year that you feel like you’ve been through a wringer by October. But the severity of this year’s highs and lows have taken this season to a whole new level of stress, so I consider myself extremely lucky that this is the first year that I’ve covered the Red Sox here at Bleacher Brawls.
A lot of the reason why this year has been so taxing for Red Sox fans is the fact that the Yankees have gone through strikingly similar waves of polarity all season long. While the Yankees bore the burden of far greater expectations before the 2021 season began, the dominance Boston showed for the first half of the season completely flipped the script. Starting August 1st, the Red Sox became the elite powerhouse struggling to keep from an embarrassing implosion while the Yankees became the Little Engine that Could, puffing their way up a treacherous slope toward the playoffs. Then the tables turned again when the Red Sox won seven in a row to crawl back into the playoff race despite being swept in Fenway by the empire.
And here we are now, after 161 games, with two very different, very flawed teams sharing the exact same record and the exact same do-or-die position for game 162.
If the Red Sox and the Yankees both win Sunday, they will earn the two American League wild card playoff spots and meet at Fenway Park for the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday. However, if either team loses, they risk losing their wild card spot to the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners via all kinds of potential tiebreaker scenarios and skullduggery that hurt my brain to even ponder.
I’m honestly hoping that the Red Sox and the Yankees win. They’re easily the most storied franchises in the race, they have the biggest fanbases, and the atmosphere of a Red Sox-Yankees win-or-go-home playoff game would be a history-making, exhilarating event for the entire sport. It’s the only satisfactory way to conclude the madness of 2021.
Saturday’s game against the Washington Nationals was just the latest chapter in this David Lynch movie of a baseball season. The Nationals blow, they have absolutely nothing to play for, and they have awful pitching. So naturally, the Red Sox managed only one run and three hits through the first six innings.
Yet Tanner Houk, making his first start in weeks after a sabbatical in the bullpen that included walking four guys in one of last weekend’s collapses against the Yankees, turned in the best performance of his young career during the biggest game of his life. Houk was literally perfect, allowing nobody to reach base through five innings before Alex Cora made the controversial, yet correct, decision to hand the ball over to the bullpen. Houk has only pitched more than five innings once in his career, and a must-win game in October is no time to wander into uncharted territory.
We all knew this game would become a grind once the bullpens took over, and Boston’s meager one-run lead after five ensured that we would not be mistaken.
Garrett Richards got through the sixth without issue, but Ryan Brasier hoisted the weight of the world on his shoulders in the seventh. After a walk and two hate-able defensive gaffes loaded the bases, Brasier froze Jordy Mercer on a 2-2 fastball to bring the Red Sox within six outs of moving into a wild card tie with the Yankees. But Adam Ottavino’s 2021 downward spiral continued when he started the eighth by loading the bases, retiring only one batter as he did so. Lefthanded jabronie Austin Davis replaced Ottavino, miraculously getting out of the inning after a 390-foot sacrifice fly from MVP candidate Juan Soto tied the game at 1.
The Red Sox bats finally woke up when hard-throwing hack Tanner Rainey, who may be bagging groceries next April, took the hill for the Nats in the ninth. Christian Vazquez rocked an RBI triple, professional pinch-hitter Travis Shaw singled in an insurance run, and Chaim Bloom muse Kike Hernandez hit a two-run homer to give the Sox a four-run lead that never felt safe for a second.
After Davis walked the first hitter of the bottom of the ninth and gave up a bomb to the next one, my blood pressure soared once again. It quickened considerably as I watched de facto closer Hansel Robles walk National mainstay Ryan Zimmerman on a 3-2 fastball to bring the tying run to the plate. But just as he did last night, Robles induced a flyout to right that Hunter Renfroe squeezed to lock down Game 161 and give the Red Sox control of their own destiny for the last day of the regular season.
I was watching my two daughters and their friend, ages 7, 5, and 3, throughout the entirety of this game. I never sat down once during those 3 hours and 53 minutes. I stood during lulls and paced during the innumerable moments of tension, throwing some nuggets and fries in the air fryer at some point and smearing a few rice cakes with what was either jelly or Arm & Hammer to keep the girls from starving. I’m told that it’s bad form to cuss or yell around children these days, which made the experience even more challenging. But in the end, it was all worth it.
For the last couple weeks, every win has been a saving grace while every loss has been an inexcusable disgrace. Every inning that the Red Sox and Yankees have played lately has been high leverage with dire consequences. And while the Rays, White Sox, and Astros have appeared to be better teams this year, they have all been sitting pretty, playing out the string until their meaningful games restart with the onset of the playoffs.
The Red Sox and Yankees, however, have each played a dozen or so games in playoff atmospheres since mid-September as their postseason lives hung in the balance. For this reason, I am not of the mind that Boston and New York are merely competing for the chance to get pounded by superior playoff teams.
Playing in a do-or-die situation is now second nature for the BoSox and the Bombers, not to mention the Blue Jays and the Mariners. Whoever wins the wild card game will be in the advantageous position of being competitively hardened and battle-tested, while the minds and hearts of the number-one seed Tampa Bay Rays have not had to truly grasp the concept of elimination as of yet this year. The team that emerges from this incredible wild card race will be a threat to represent the American League in the World Series, and that will not be due to their talent on the field.
It will be due to the fight, will, and character that the wild card team will have accumulated in order to rise above the other three competitors. The Red Sox and Yankees are not elite teams with stacked, well-balanced rosters whose skill can elevate them above the other contenders. They are flawed, lacking teams hanging together by frayed, weakened threads that could snap any second like a string of wet spaghetti. They are amateur handymen trying to build a skyscraper with blueprints scribbled in crayon.
It will take all twenty-six players on the roster to get the Red Sox a win Sunday and earn them a berth in the American League Wild Card game. Ace Chris Sale will be the starter, but the bullpen will be a little more cramped than usual.
Alex Cora sent a text to starting pitchers Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Nick Pivetta before Saturday’s game. It was a brief, two-word message that left nothing open to interpretation and assured the hurlers of where their heads needed to be at game time. That message rings even truer on Sunday for Game 162.