WASHINGTON — After more than six months, 162 games have been distilled to one. The complexity of dozens of wild-card scenarios has been reduced to a simpler proposition for the Red Sox on the last scheduled day of the regular season: Win, and they’re in.
The Red Sox emerged from a thrillingly, sickeningly tense game against the Nationals on Saturday with a 5-3 victory. In so doing, the Sox (91-70) tied the Yankees for the best record among wild-card contenders, one ahead of the Blue Jays and the Mariners, who are both 90-71.
A Sunday victory against the Nats, who will feature righty Joan Adon in his big league debut, assures the Red Sox will host the win-or-go-home Wild Card Game at Fenway Park — scheduled for Tuesday — for the right to play the Tampa Bay Rays in the Division Series.
That straightforward road obscures the headspinning subplots of a fascinatingly dense contest that featured Tanner Houck pulled amidst a perfect game; redlining relievers clawing for 12 outs; continued Red Sox offensive struggles and defensive misplays; a hold-your-breath, poke-the-bear at-bat that inspired the wrath of the game’s best hitter; and a breakthrough hit by a recently marginalized Sox staple.
“A tremendous game. It took a lot from both sides,” exhaled Sox manager Alex Cora. “It wasn’t easy. It hasn’t been easy the whole season.”
Nationals starter Josiah Gray dominated the Red Sox for six innings, save for one batter. With two outs in the top of the fourth inning, Gray left a mid-90s fastball over the plate to Rafael Devers, who launched his 36th homer of the season into the right-center bleachers for a 1-0 lead.
That was all the Sox could muster against the rookie, but it was sufficient to give the team a lead thanks to Houck’s brilliance. The righthander featured what he described as “A-plus stuff,” a mid-90s four-seam fastball, sinker, devastating slider, and effective splitter. That combination allowed him to overwhelm the Nationals through five perfect innings on just 53 pitches. He struck out eight of the 15 batters he faced.
But the electrifying performance was not enough to keep him in the game. Houck hadn’t started since Sept. 15. The subsequent 16 days, he made three relief appearances, none lasting more than 42 pitches. He was pitching on three days of rest. And so, Cora replaced him for pinch-hitter Christian Arroyo in the top of the sixth, asking his bullpen for four innings.
“You want to manage with your heart, but you have to be smart,” said Cora. “It might look bad outside our world but … today it felt like that was good enough.”
Denied a shot at a perfect game, Houck became the third Red Sox pitcher ever to be removed while at least five innings into the pursuit of one, with Cy Young (7 perfect innings in a 1904 contest) and George Winter (5 innings, 1907).
“Obviously it’s difficult to come out,” said Houck, “but for me, I’d much rather us get a win.”
That happened, but not without turbulence. Garrett Richards allowed a two-out, pinch-hit single by Gerardo Parra to break up the perfect game with two outs in the sixth, but followed with an inning-ending groundout.
Ryan Brasier — pitching for the fourth time in as many days for the first time in his life, and the first time by a Red Sox pitcher since 2015 — followed in the seventh. Brasier missed the first five months of the year due to a calf injury, then a concussion suffered when he was hit in the head by a liner while rehabbing.
He finally made it to the big leagues in September, only to be sent down in the middle of the month due to ineffectiveness.
“It lit a fire under my butt,” said Brasier. “I had to come back and prove myself.”
And so, he did not shy when asked before the game whether he needed the day off.
“I had five months worth of days,” he said. “I am more than ready to keep pitching in these situations.”
After two quick outs, Brasier loaded the bases on two infield hits sandwiched around a walk, but caught Jordy Mercer looking at a fastball. He howled with elation and exhaustion as he left the mound.
But the Sox could not run a perfect bullpen relay. With Adam Ottavino on the mound for the eighth, center fielder Hunter Renfroe lost a routine fly ball in the picturesque-turned-grotesque twilight. The pop-up fell for a one-out double, and Ottavino, pitching for a third straight day, walked the next two batters to load the bases for Juan Soto.
Cora brought in lefty Austin Davis. Soto stepped out of the box multiple times before the first pitch. Davis objected. Soto became furious.
“He started talking trash to me, and my mindset just changed to kick his [butt],” said Soto.
Soto crushed a fastball 393 feet, but to the deepest part of the park in dead center, where Renfroe caught it. For the Sox, a game-tying sac fly was cause for relief.
“It was scary,” said catcher Christian Vázquez. “Thank God it stayed in the ballpark. I’ll take that over a four-run homer.”
A half-inning later, it was instead Vázquez delivering a game-changing blow. Though he has lost playing time down the stretch due to his offensive struggles, he’s remained effective against mid-90s heat. And so, with a runner on first and two outs, he remained confident against Nats reliever Tanner Rainey.
He tripled to right off a heater, giving the Sox a 2-1 lead. Travis Shaw followed with an RBI single, and after a pitching change, Kiké Hernández blasted a two-run homer (his 20th) to put the Sox ahead, 5-1.
Each blow proved crucial, as Davis gave up a two-run homer to Andrew Stevenson in the bottom of the ninth. But Hansel Robles entered to restore order by recording the final three outs, restoring air to the lungs of teammates who had gone 3 hours, 53 minutes without a breath.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.