NEW YORK — They don’t want this race to be close. They don’t want to back in. They don’t want to make this a frantic finish with the last three games in Baltimore meaning something.
By the time the final three games roll around, they want them to mean absolutely nothing. Maybe they’ll mean something to the Orioles, but they shouldn’t mean anything to the Red Sox.
That’s how much they want to take care of business, look the tough schedule ahead smack in the eye and beat it.
They pounded the Tigers, 20-4, on Wednesday night, basked in the glow of their eight homers for a while, and then came right back for the opener of a tough four-game series with the Yankees, and for a while it looked as if they were going to take care of them.
Instead, the Yankees, fighting for a playoff berth, knowing the Orioles, one of teams they’re competing with, had won, had took an 8-7 lead after being down, 7-2. In the end, however, the Red Sox were just toying with them. While the Sox’ bullpen imploded in the seventh, Koji Uehara didn’t, and they won, 9-8, in 10 innings because they play, as manager John Farrell points out, “27 outs.” In this case, 30.
Uehara remained the rock in the pen, along with Craig Breslow, who pitched two solid innings after the Matt Thornton/Junichi Tazawa meltdown, to preserve the win.
It’s all about diversifying how you win, and that’s what the Red Sox did. They used speed this time.
Quintin Berry was acquired from the Royals to add speed to the bench. It was finally tested, and Berry met the challenge head-on.
In the ninth inning, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera must have felt he was seeing the ghost of Dave Roberts.
Rivera, on the verge of save No. 42 of the season, allowed a two-out single to Mike Napoli. Berry came in to pinch run, stole second, advanced to third on catcher Austin Romine’s bad throw, and scored on Stephen Drew’s single to make it 8-8.
“I was preparing for about three innings to come into the game,” Berry said. “When we were up by five, I didn’t think I had a chance to get in, and then I figured I’d get in there. I came back to the clubhouse about the fifth inning and started to do some things to get ready.
“The coaching staff had really prepared me with all kinds of scouting information on Mariano, so I was prepared for him. I’d never faced him because last year was my first year up and he was injured all season. Once I saw he wasn’t using a slide step, I felt I had a good chance, and I went.”
Asked about the Roberts comparisons, Berry said, “If I could help this team the way he did, that would be incredible, but I just want to make the most of my opportunities.”
And then in the 10th inning, Jacoby Ellsbury took over.
He singled to right, stole second base, his 52d of the season, and came home on Shane Victorino’s single to right. That was the pitch after Victorino appeared to strike out on a checked swing, before first base umpire Joe West ruled no swing on the appeal.
Yes, the Red Sox got plenty of breaks. The Victorino checked swing, Rivera looking like he had strike three on Napoli, Romine throwing the ball into left-center on Berry’s steal and then muffing Ichiro Suzuki’s strong throw from right that would have had Ellsbury in the 10th had it been fielded cleanly. And there was also Alfonso Soriano getting picked off second base in the bottom of the ninth.
All of the great accolades the Red Sox’ bullpen earned as a result of that mix-and-match eighth inning Tuesday in a 2-1 win over the Tigers — where Breslow, Tazawa, and Uehara took care of business — didn’t work this time around.
You could argue that starter Jake Peavy was allowed to stay in too long. And then Thornton and Tazawa were awful as the Yankees scored six times in the seventh to overtake the Sox.
This game certainly started like many Red Sox games do. They lull teams into pitching badly, falling into the same trap where they allow Sox hitters to get deep into the count before exploding offensively. It happens time after time.
As Tigers manager Jim Leyland pointed out at Fenway this week, it’s really pitchers not throwing strikes and allowing the Red Sox to execute their game plan. Few teams have been able to counter it with strike throwers. Baltimore’s Chris Tillman gets it, and has succeeded against Boston as a result. But then Ivan Nova, New York’s best pitcher, the AL pitcher of the month in August, throws a stinker and falls into the trap of falling behind on virtually every count, and Boston just throttled him.
This Red Sox team really gets it. They don’t beat themselves. So, it’s rare to see Ellsbury get picked off first base in the sixth inning.
If you look at this month in total, you’d be overwhelmed by the schedule. Because it’s tough. Really tough. Yet the Sox slapped around the Tigers, and now have started on the right foot with the Yankees.
Peavy was not great, but tough. He was really tough when it counted most.
He gave up two runs in the third as the Yankees tied the game, but in the fourth he got into trouble again and pitched like a bulldog to get out of it by striking out Suzuki, who rarely fans, on a nasty 3-and-2 pitch out of the strike zone, and then getting Chris Stewart to fly to left.
It was like watching Jon Lester against the Tigers, bases loaded, down 2 and 0 in the count against Miguel Cabrera, and he throws him a nasty cutter that Cabrera pounds into the ground for the final out of the inning.
These are the types of performances the Sox are getting. Clutch, gutsy, tough.
It’s the opposite of what you see from most of their competition, who display so much incompetence and bad baseball. Even when they’re down, the Sox don’t seem out. And Thursday night, they proved that. They want to earn the division title. They want to win it emphatically.
And you could see Thursday night, even if you try to wrestle it from them, they’ll fight back.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.