NEW YORK — It’s not about the day-to-day wins and losses anymore. It’s about October.
In another year, the end of Sunday’s Red Sox-Yankees game might make us reach into the Way Back Machine and speak of Bob Stanley clanging a wild pitch off the glove of Rich Gedman. We might be talking about buzzard luck, September swoons, and damn Yankees.
Not this time. Not now.
The Sox were beaten by the Yankees, 4-3, and allowed the winning run to score when Brandon Workman uncorked a high heater off the mitt of Jarrod Saltalamacchia with Ichiro Suzuki on third and two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
But the bigger news was the announcement that Jacoby Ellsbury has a compression fracture in his right foot. The Sox say he’ll play again this season, but we’ve been down this path before.
The Boston baseball world is very different now. The Red Sox own the best record in baseball and have shredded the competition in the American League East. They bludgeoned the reeling Yankees three times in the first four days of their postcard-perfect September weekend in New York. Sunday’s finale didn’t turn out the way the Sox wanted, but they still got eight strong innings from Jon Lester and a tying ninth-inning homer against Mariano Rivera by resurgent Will Middlebrooks.
One win or loss doesn’t make that much difference anymore. Moving through the next three weeks it’s going to be more about who is healthy for the Red Sox (Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz?) and what other teams make the playoffs in the AL.
Sunday’s game said much more about the Yankees than it did about the Red Sox. We saw Mark Reynolds bunting in the second inning of a one-run game. Then Yankees skipper Joe Girardi summoned Rivera to protect a one-run lead at the start of the eighth.
It was a little confusing hearing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” at the end of the seventh. It made us check our scorecards to verify that this was, in fact, the eighth inning and not the ninth.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,’’ said Girardi. “He told us he could probably give us two innings. Mo was our best pitcher at the time.’’
We get the drill: Girardi doesn’t have anybody else. And these are the final weeks of the Hall of Fame career of Mr. Rivera. He’s got the rest of his life to recover from any abuse of the remaining three weeks. He might even get the ball again Monday night when the Yankees play at Baltimore.
“I’m going to see if he can throw lefthanded,’’ joked Girardi. “He’s not saving anything for 2014.’’
The next three weeks are going to be relatively easy for the BoSox. Virtually clinching the division gives the Sox a chance to sit back and watch the wild-card contenders wear themselves out.
“This is tough baseball down the stretch for every team involved,’’ said Girardi. “Some teams [Red Sox, Tigers] are trying to preserve what they’ve got, some [Yankees, Rays, Orioles, Indians] are trying to get there.’’
The Red Sox are already there. They are going to finish in first place, which means no cheesy “Wild-card champion” hats and T-shirts.
This is rare. The Sox in the last 15 years have been primo beneficiaries of wild cards.
Almost all of Boston’s postseason appearances are gifts from the gods of expanded playoffs.
The Sox made the playoffs eight times in 12 seasons from 1998 through 2009, earning entry seven times with a wild-card slot. The Sox have finished alone in first place only once since the Kevin Kennedy Nine won the American League East in 1995. Terry Francona took five Sox teams to the playoffs, but finished first only once, in 2007.
Now this. The 2013 Sox have been in first place for 137 days. And this isn’t one of those Dan Duquette “more days in first place” seasons.
Finishing first means the Sox will get a Division Series against a tired, out-of-alignment wild-card team. The Sox will be able to rest and reset their pitching rotation. They will have home-field advantage. And they are liable to be playing a worn-out weakling (anybody up for a best-of-five against Tito’s Tribe?).
But as good as things look right now, the uncertainty about Ellsbury is going to dog them for the rest of the regular season.
A tough loss by the Sox doesn’t hurt the way it hurt before. Sox fans can sit back and look at the big picture. Who will be healthy enough to play? What is the Sox’ best rotation? And who is the easiest opponent?
It’s all about October now.