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Red Sox 7, Nationals 5

Red Sox to host Yankees in Tuesday’s Wild Card Game after Rafael Devers helps clinch sweep of Nationals

Rafael Devers celebrated after his two-run homer in the top of the ninth gave the Red Sox a 7-5 lead.Greg Fiume/Getty

WASHINGTON — Little went smoothly on the road traveled by the 2021 Red Sox through 161 games. The last scheduled contest of the regular season seemed no time to alter that path. As was so often the case, the Red Sox remained unyielding on the final day of the 2021 regular season, completing a zigzagging path to October in memorable fashion.

Down 2-0 through three innings and 5-1 through five while largely overwhelmed by Nationals rookie righthander Yoan Adon in his big league debut, the Sox did not capitulate. Instead, they resolutely chiseled at the granite block of a four-run deficit.

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“It’s just, ‘Hey, let’s chip away,’” said outfielder Alex Verdugo.

Chip they did. The team plated one run in the sixth and three to tie the game in the seventh.

Finally, in the top of the ninth, Rafael Devers smashed a 447-foot, two-run homer to center — his second of the game and 38th of 2021 — to lead the Sox to a monumental 7-5 comeback victory in Washington.

With the hard-earned three-game sweep, the Sox clinched the top Wild Card seed in the American League and the right to host a Wild Card Game at Fenway on Tuesday against the Yankees. The winner will advance to play the Rays in the AL Division Series.

That straightforward outcome — rather than dizzying scenarios that could have accompanied a loss — seemed hard to imagine for most of Sunday. Though Sox starter Chris Sale came out slinging, striking out the side in the first inning, he soon faltered.

A pair of doubles — the second by Jordy Mercer against a changeup, a highly ineffective offering for Sale in his return from Tommy John — gave Washington a 1-0 lead in the second inning.

In the third, Washington added on. Sale loaded the bases on a walk and two singles before forcing in a run on a bases-loaded walk to Nationals icon Ryan Zimmerman, potentially playing his final game.

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With Washington up, 2-0, manager Alex Cora employed his hook. The two-run, 2⅓-inning outing represented the shortest start of Sale’s career, save for a pair of pitch count-limited starts he made in 2018.

“Chris wasn’t sharp,” said Cora.

Though Devers mashed a solo homer — his 37th, a 423-foot shot to left-center — to make it 2-1, the Nationals scored thrice in the fifth against reliever Garrett Richards to move ahead, 5-1.

Scoreboard-watching intensified. Curiosity grew as to whether other teams might aid the Sox in a postseason quest that they seemed, to that point, unlikely to complete on their own.

But even with the Mariners trailing the Angels, the Blue Jays were crushing the Orioles. A two-way tie with the Jays or possibly a three-team knot with the Yankees had made Game 163 seem likely — unless the Sox could come back.

“I remember looking up and seeing that the Yankees won in the bottom of the ninth. I was like, ‘All right, we’ve gotta go boys. Let’s go,’” said Verdugo. “We knew we had our job to do. We had to go out there and take care of business.”

Business time started with three singles — the last a two-out infield chopper from Christian Vázquez on which Verdugo hustled to beat a force play at second — that produced a run in the sixth.

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Still down 5-2, the Sox enjoyed three straight one-out singles in the seventh from Kyle Schwarber, Xander Bogaerts, and Devers against reliever Erik Fedde to make it 5-3. After a foul-out by José Iglesias (in for the injured J.D. Martinez), Verdugo — the key player who came to the Sox in the Mookie Betts trade of 2020 — hit with two outs.

In a pivotal spot, the 25-year-old smashed a Fedde Frisbee for a game-tying, two-run double to right-center. With the game at 5-5, the dynamics shifted quickly.

With his bullpen exhausted, Cora turned to fresh reinforcements. Garrett Whitlock, in his first appearance since a pectoral strain sidelined him on Sept. 19, breezed through a 10-pitch seventh. Starter-turned-reliever Eduardo Rodriguez then reprised the “rover” role that Cora employed in the 2018 playoffs with a perfect eighth.

In the ninth, the Nationals offered a gift: A Mercer error on a routine Schwarber groundball. Two batters later, Devers came to the plate.

“I know the implications of these games. These games are extremely important,” Devers said through a translator. “I just kept talking to myself, ‘I’ve got to help the team, I’ve got to help the team.’”

Help came in the form of harm of a splitter from reliever Kyle Finnegan. Devers (4-for-5, two homers) sent a 113-m.p.h. rocket that bull’s-eyed the batter’s eye in center.

Devers held his follow-through, then tossed the bat and hoisted his arms in triumph. The vociferous Sox contingent at Nationals Park erupted.

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“He’s an amazing talent,” Cora gushed of Devers. “No moment is too big for him.”

Righthander Nick Pivetta took the ninth. In his first relief appearance of the year, Pivetta earned his second career save by inducing a pop-up and groundout before freezing star slugger Juan Soto on a nosediving curveball. The Sox poured onto the field in celebration of an unlikely win that punctuated a topsy-turvy regular season.

Reaching the playoffs is an accomplishment that seemed inevitable at points and impossible at others. The Red Sox were swept to open the year at Fenway by the woeful Orioles but rebounded to sweep the Rays, starting a winning streak that propelled the team into first place for most of four months.

But they sputtered through August, then were thrown into chaos by a COVID-19 outbreak that swept the team from late-August through mid-September. At different intervals, the team lost Bogaerts, Sale, and roughly half of its bullpen.

Startling roster churn followed. Ultimately, 56 players entered games for the Sox this year — tied for the most in franchise history. A team-record 33 pitchers took the mound.

The resulting puzzle pieces sometimes seemed forced. But ultimately, they fit to yield a picture that, while unlikely to find a home in the MFA, is undeniably that of a playoff team — one that has earned a single winner-take-all opportunity against the Yankees at Fenway, echoing the one-game playoff that yielded the famous/infamous Bucky Dent game of 1978.

“It’s going to be nuts,” Verdugo said.

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Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.