NEW YORK — Boston Red Sox fans don’t have any fingernails left after a stomach-churning bottom of the ninth, but their team is moving on the American League Championship Series.
The winningest team in Red Sox franchise history held on to beat the New York Yankees 4-3 to clinch the Division Series. They survived a two-run rally by the Yankees in the final inning, including a final-out instant review play at first base that held off the celebration in the middle of the diamond until the out call at first base on Gleyber Torres‘ slow roller could be confirmed.
The Red Sox move on to their first ALCS since 2013 after marching into Yankee Stadium and sweeping both games. Rick Porcello allowed one run in five innings, the Red Sox turned a leadoff hit batter in the third inning into a three-run rally off CC Sabathia and Chris Sale made a surprise relief appearance to help the Red Sox to a 4-1 lead entering the ninth. Closer Craig Kimbrel nearly blew the game, however, as he walked two batters and Gary Sanchez just missed a walk-off grand slam when his towering fly ball to left field was caught on the warning track. He finally induced Torres to ground out to Eduardo Nunez for the final out.
While losing to a strong Yankees team wouldn’t have been a disgrace, the victory does help validate the success in the regular season, especially after the Red Sox flamed out in the Division Series to the Astros last season and were swept by the Indians in 2016.
The series win sets up a titanic showdown in the ALCS between the 108-win Red Sox and the 103-win and defending World Series champion Houston Astros. It’s the first LCS matchup of 100-win teams since 1977, when the Yankees beat the Royals in the ALCS and the Dodgers beat the Phillies in the NLCS. It’s just the third postseason series of any type of 100-win teams, joining last year’s World Series and this just completed series between the Red Sox and Yankees.
Porcello’s final batter was a crucial nine-pitch battle against Aaron Hicks in the bottom of the fifth. With a runner on and two outs, if Hicks reached base Aaron Judge would have represented the tying run. Hicks just missed a home run on an 0-1 curveball as his liner down the right-field line hooked foul. Porcello thought he had Hicks struck out with a 1-2 changeup up at the knees, hopping a little off the mound as the pitch was ruled a ball. With the fans up on their feet and cheering loudly, Porcello finally induced Hicks to pop up to right field to second baseman Ian Kinsler.
While Yankees manager Aaron Boone received criticism for waiting too long to pull starter Luis Severino in Game 3 and will face further harsh reviews for leaving Sabathia in too long, Red Sox skipper Alex Cora had the magic touch throughout the series. Of note, he brought in Porcello in relief in Game 1 and he retired Miguel Andújar and Gary Sánchez. Cora also started Brock Holt in Game 3, when Holt became the first player in postseason history to hit for the cycle.
Cora reinserted Kinsler for Holt in Game 4 and Kinsler doubled in a run with a rocket over the head of a leaping Brett Gardner in the third and then scored on Nunez’s double (Nunez himself was back in the lineup for Rafael Devers, who had two hits and two runs in Game 3). Cora also started Christian Vazquez in Game 4 to catch Porcello for the first time all season, and Vazquez hit his first home run since June 26. Cora’s bullpen moves paid off in Game 4 as Matt Barnes threw a perfect sixth, Ryan Brasier tossed a perfect seventh.
Maybe the game’s most dramatic moment came when Red Sox ace Sale entered the game in the bottom of the eighth. Cora had been asked before the game about a similar situation last year in the Division Series when he was the bench coach with the Astros and A.J. Hinch brought in Justin Verlander in Game 4 against the Red Sox. Cora answered that he “didn’t agree” with Hinch at the time, “because I’m thinking Game 5.” He added, “You got to be smart. In this game, 100 percent, it doesn’t guarantee you anything because there’s a guy on the other side with a bat and they can change the game with one swing. So we’ll see. We’ll see it how it goes.”
With a chance to finish off the Yankees, Cora couldn’t resist using Sale to bridge the gap to Kimbrel. He got a fly out to deep right-center, a slow chopper to third base and then fanned Hicks looking on a slider at the knees. A calm, efficient 13-pitch inning.
Next up: The defending champs, who rolled through Cleveland in sweeping their series. The team played seven games against each other in the regular season, with the Astros taking four of season – including two of three at Fenway in early September. Sale didn’t pitch in that series, but neither did Verlander. That could be the Game 1 matchup if the Red Sox are willing to start Sale on three days’ rest following his relief outing on Tuesday.