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Momentum, History on Yankees' Side as Wild-Card Showdown with Red Sox Looms

Zachary D. Rymer

The next time the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees meet will either be in 2022, or next Tuesday for their 20th tilt of the season and their first winner-take-all contest since 2004.

Though Major League Baseball's most storied rivals aren't yet locked into a one-game playoff in the American League Wild Card Game, that would be the matchup at Yankee Stadium if the game was today. The Yankees and Red Sox hold the league's two wild cards, with the latter having gained the top spot with a dramatic sweep at Fenway Park over the weekend.

It was real gut punch for the Red Sox. Or, more accurately, a series of gut punches mostly delivered by Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton. He hit a three-run home run on Friday, a grand slam on Saturday and then a two-run homer on Sunday that effectively iced the series:

Perhaps more so than in what order they'll finish, the big question now is if the Yankees and Red Sox will even keep the two wild-card spots. The Toronto Blue Jays are only one game back, after all, and the Seattle Mariners (1.5 GB) and Oakland Athletics (3.5 GB) are also in the race.

Still, you can rest assured that folks in Boston and the Bronx are pulling for the Red Sox and Yankees to throw down next Tuesday. Because big games between these two teams are also big business there are also presumably many fingers crossed within MLB's offices.

Besides, one more game between Boston and New York would be far from a frivolity. Beyond simply being the latest chapter in a rich history, it would finish business between the two clubs that's very much unfinished.

A Tale of Two Season Series

To be sure, you'd be hard-pressed to make an argument that 2021 has brought the best iteration of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.

This rivalry has had some high stakes over the years, including when it revolved around Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the 1940s and Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson in the 1970s. There was drama aplenty between the two sides in 2003 and 2004, and it was only three years ago that both clubs won 100 games in the regular season before meeting in October.

Yet this might be the most evenly matched the Red Sox and Yankees have ever been. Though Boston claimed the 19-game season series, it was only by the narrowest possible margins for wins (10-9) and run differential (75-74).

The Red Sox were in control early on, winning each the first seven games between the two and 10 of the first 13 overall. But then the Yankees staged the best version of "The Empire Strikes Back" since the OG debuted in 1980, winning each of the next six contests.

Though there is no singular explanation for the Yankees' comeback, the shift in how the two clubs have hit with the bases empty, runners on and runners in scoring position is striking:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

With nobody on, the Red Sox have actually done even better in the last six games than they did in the first 13 games. But they've otherwise fallen well short at tacking on the hits they've needed to get runners home, whereas the Yankees have improved across the board.

More broadly, the sudden momentum swing in this year's Red Sox-Yankees rivalry mirrors how the two teams have fared since they went in different directions at the July 30 trade deadline. The Yankees are 35-19 since then, while the Red Sox are only 25-26.

A frustratingly persistent outbreak of COVID-19 obviously didn't help the Red Sox, yet their deficiencies on the field have been painfully obvious. For instance, their relievers are second-to-last in the AL with a 4.69 ERA since the deadline. Then there's their defense, which has gone from an inconvenient weakness to more like an inescapable curse of late.

Both issues have loomed large amid Boston's six-game losing streak to the Yankees. Red Sox relievers have taken the L in half of the six losses, most notably in a walk-fueled meltdown Saturday. Catching the ball has been less of a factor, though Boston might have avoided Sunday's meltdown if Bobby Dalbec's and Christian Vazquez's poor glovework hadn't granted Aaron Judge two extra lives before his clutch two-run double.

For their part, the Yankees have certainly pitched well, holding the Red Sox to 14 total runs in the clubs' last six meetings. So it goes for them in general, as their 3.60 ERA since the deadline ranks second in the AL.

The Yankees offense, meanwhile, has more closely resembled a typical Bronx Bombers offense even outside of its clutch hitting against Boston. Since Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo came aboard ahead of the deadline, Toronto is the only AL club with more home runs.

The Road Ahead Favors Boston

As if being generally hot and utterly dominant against their longtime rivals didn't already bode well enough for the Yankees, they're also set up well for an automatic advantage should they and the Red Sox meet again next week.

With ace right-hander Gerrit Cole set to start Wednesday in Toronto, the Yankees can plan on pitching him next Tuesday after five days of rest. That's when he's most dangerous, as his 15 starts on five days' rest have yielded a 2.70 ERA.

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

As much as the Red Sox would probably love to counter with ace left-hander Chris Sale, his Tuesday assignment against the Baltimore Orioles means he could go again on regular rest for Boston's season finale against the Washington Nationals on Sunday. That would leave Nathan Eovaldi, who was last seen getting lit up for seven runs in just 2.2 innings by the Yankees on Friday, to start the Wild Card Game.

Before the Yankees start printing tickets, however, they must first tackle a remaining schedule that's much harder than Boston's.

Sure, the Red Sox play each of their six remaining games on the road. But it'll be a shock if they get much push-back from either the Orioles or the Nationals. With 106 losses and counting, the former is the worst team in MLB. The latter has dropped "only" 96 games, but only Baltimore has lost more often since the trade deadline.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have to go through the Blue Jays on their turf and then the Tampa Bay Rays back at home to finish the season. The Jays are 21-9 at home since returning to the Rogers Centre on July 31. At 97-59, the Rays are the best team in the AL and have handled the Yankees to the tune of a 9-7 record.

There's also the matter of Judge's left pinky finger, which he dislocated sliding into second base on Sunday night. If he's at all limited by that, the Yankees' best hitter (i.e., a .903 OPS and 36 HR) will be less of a factor in what games they have left.  

Apropos of all this, FanGraphs still gives the Red Sox better chances than the Yankees of nabbing a wild-card spot of any kind. That obviously runs counter to the momentum that the Yankees have built up, but that's the problem with momentum: it's there until it's not.

There's Rich History at Play Here

To hold us all over until the Red Sox and Yankees possibly meet again next week, how about a history lesson on the other do-or-die games that the two teams have ever played?

It wasn't until 1949, about a half-century into each team's existence, that the first such game occurred. The Red Sox went into a season-ending two-game series at New York needing just one win to secure the American League pennant, but got none as the Yankees won both games to leapfrog them in the standings and take the pennant for themselves.

Fast-forward about 30 years to 1978. The Red Sox led the Yankees in the American League East by as many as 14 games as late as July 19. But both clubs ended the regular season proper with 99 wins to set up a one-game playoff at Fenway Park.

Cue Bucky "Bleeping" Dent, and a 5-4 victory for the Yankees:

Now skip ahead 25 years to 2003, wherein Boston and New York met in the American League Championship Series and played to a decisive Game 7. The Red Sox had a 5-2 lead behind Pedro Martinez in that one, but Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada set 'em up and future Yankees manager Aaron Boone knocked 'em down for a 6-5 win in extras: 

It wasn't until 2004 that the Red Sox finally broke the mold. What was originally a seemingly insurmountable 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS became a 3-3 tie, and then Boston went to town in a 10-3 win in Game 7:

Weirdly, it's because of that game that the Red Sox have actually outscored the Yankees by three runs in the four winner-take-all games that they've ever played. The only scoreboard that matters, though, ultimately reads 3-1 in favor of New York.

Should the Red Sox and Yankees meet again in the AL Wild Card game and the Yankees win, it'll be deja vu. But should a grudge match go to the Red Sox, it obviously wouldn't be the first time that they proved history is a record of what was and not what must be.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

   

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