BOSTON — Imagine if all the baseball we’ve seen this season had never been played. If you root for the Yankees, especially after another humbling weekend at Fenway Park, you might like that idea: Wipe it all away and start fresh.
Of course, that really did happen last year, with the pandemic forcing the cancellation of the first 102 games before a mini-season without fans. Their absence was acutely felt here, where history and the sense of community are so vital to the experience.
“Last year wasn’t baseball, in my opinion,” Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez said recently. “Sixty games, man. It was just weirdness. It wasn’t fun. You could hear the cars drive by on the highway. I’d never heard that before; that’s how quiet it is.
“It’s just different when you have the fans there, when everything’s back to normal — that’s what you play for.’”
Martinez fanned in his final at-bat on Sunday, becoming the fourth Red Sox hitter to strike out in the seventh inning against the Yankees’ Domingo German. (One batter had reached on a passed ball.) The Red Sox had no hits or runs and trailed the Yankees by four. Then a vintage Fenway rally — sudden and noisy — buried the Yankees.
The old shrine roared to life as the Red Sox stirred in the eighth. A double chased German. Another double, two singles and the inning’s third double flattened Jonathan Loaisiga. Zack Britton retired three hitters in a row, but two of the outs brought runners home.
Red Sox 5, Yankees 4. Cue the Dropkick Murphys.
“You find yourself on top of the world, and all of a sudden you’re free falling — and you fall fast,” German said through a Spanish-language interpreter. “It’s tough. It’s so hard to even process what happened.”
The Yankees (51-47) had a postgame flight to Florida to figure it out. They trail the Red Sox (61-39) by nine games in the American League East and the second-place Tampa Bay Rays by eight. They rank fourth in the race for the two wild-card spots, behind the Rays, the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners.
In their biggest games, the Yankees have looked their worst: 8-18 against the Rays and the Red Sox but 43-29 against everyone else. They dropped three of four this weekend, and while their only win was impressive — a late comeback on Saturday after trailing by three — the moral victory talk is getting old.
“Look, it’s been a difficult season to this point, no question about it,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “But to these guys’ credit, they continue to get off the mat time and time again, and we’ll do it again.”
Continuing to compete despite tough losses, though, is the bare minimum expected of professionals; admirable, yes, but hardly an achievement. The real issue is why those losses keep happening.
The plodding Yankees did some unusual things for them on Sunday: They stole two bases, executed a sacrifice bunt and even got a triple from catcher Gary Sanchez, his second in more than 2,000 career plate appearances.
But they also bounced into two double plays (they lead the majors with 94) and watched Giancarlo Stanton strike out twice with runners in scoring position. Stanton is 7 for 45 (.156) with 21 strikeouts against Boston this season.
Boone, who is unsigned past this season, had a shaky game of his own. German — who only recently regained his spot in the rotation — had not thrown more than 72 pitches in six weeks, and Boone pulled him as soon as Alex Verdugo broke up the no-hitter on German’s 93rd pitch. That seemed sensible enough, but German said he felt strong.
“No fatigue at all,” he said. “Not at all. I felt really good. When I started the game, the first inning felt good, and as the innings were going by, I was actually feeling better. I was able to get in a really good rhythm and be more aggressive in attacking the zone.”
Verdugo’s double, which one-hopped the wall in front of the bullpen in right field, led to the Yankees’ bringing in Loaisiga for his second appearance since a stint on the Covid injured list. By rule, Boone had to use him for at least three batters — but he kept him in for a fourth consecutive hit, a ringing double by Enrique Hernandez.
In that case, Boone said, he liked the righty-righty matchup. With no outs and runners on second and third, Boone summoned the left-hander Britton, a ground ball specialist, but moved in only the corner infielders. A soft, routine grounder to shortstop tied the game.
“In hindsight, that’s the one I kind of question myself about: should we have just sold out with no outs there?” Boone said. “That’s certainly debatable.”
The Yankees expect to activate outfielder Aaron Judge and catcher Kyle Higashioka from the Covid injured list this week against the Rays, and third baseman Gio Urshela returned on Sunday. But after nearly 100 games — a familiar and comforting benchmark, whoever you root for — this is clearly a two-team race for the division title.
Even worse, for the Yankees, is that both the Rays and the Red Sox are only getting better. Tampa Bay just traded with Minnesota for a premier slugger, Nelson Cruz, and the Red Sox will soon welcome back an ace, Chris Sale, who threw 64 pitches with his rebuilt left elbow in the minors on Sunday.
“There’s only one team that can add Chris Sale, and it’s us,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora said. “And everybody knows what he means.”
The Yankees could counter before Friday’s trade deadline, but it may be too late to make a difference.