BALTIMORE — It’s such a strange signature.
Once again, the Red Sox fell behind early. Once again, they stormed back in a game they trailed after five innings, pushing it into extra frames. And once again, when nine innings proved inadequate to decide an outcome, the Red Sox outlasted their opponent, beating the Orioles, 10-8, in 11 innings Monday, to improve to a whopping 14-3 in extra innings. (They beat the Orioles in 11 again Tuesday night, 1-0.)
As the Red Sox edge closer to a second straight division title, the role of those extra-innings victories is immense. No other team in the majors has more than 12 overtime wins.
The Yankees have played 11 extra-innings games this year, going 5-6 (.455). If they had the Sox’ .824 winning percentage in extra-innings games, they’d be 9-2, giving them first place by a game. If the Sox had gone merely 9-8 in extras, they’d be trailing New York by two games.
“It’s probably one of the main reasons we sit here today,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “There is some level of comfort. I can’t say you’re always feeling great about the situation, particularly on the road, but the number of games we’ve played and how we’ve executed late in games, I’m extremely proud of the way they go about it.”
The extra-inning wins attest to a number of laudable traits: consistently remarkable bullpen efforts, general toughness and determination, as well as mental focus and execution in the face of fatigue.
But are there any implications for that kind of success on October? Do teams that excel in nail-biting games in the regular season sustain success into the playoffs? Or might a wealth of extra-inning wins mask deficiencies in a team that could be exposed against superior October competition?
Certainly, success in extras is no prerequisite to October excellence. The 2007 Red Sox, for instance, went just 2-5 in extra innings, then went 11-3 in the playoffs to win a title.
Of the 294 teams to reach the postseason since the introduction of the division format in 1969, about 10 percent (29) won at least 12 extra-innings games. Of those, just 11 (37 percent) won a playoff series, and the group included only three World Series winners — none in the last 30 years, none that needed to win multiple playoff rounds in order to advance to the World Series, and none with quite the profile of this year’s Red Sox.
The 1970 Orioles (16-9) and 1986 Mets (13-10) were both 108-game winners who actually underperformed their overall regular-season record in extras. The 1980 Phillies went 13-9 in extras, helping to propel them past the Expos to a one-game win in the NL East before they navigated through the playoffs to a title. That said, the spread between their record in extra-inning and regulation games was thin.
Since the introduction of the Division Series round in 1995, just two teams that had 12 or more extra-innings wins in the regular season reached the World Series: Atlanta in 1999 (a 103-59 regular-season team that went 17-5 in extras) and Cleveland in 1995 (100-44, and an incredible 13-0 in extras). Both were juggernauts regardless of their extra-innings records.
In other words, in 22 years of the wild-card era, there has never been a World Series team that depended on extra-innings wins in the fashion of this year’s Red Sox. The 2012 Orioles might be the best comparison, as their wild-card berth was largely due to a 16-2 record in extra innings. That team won its wild-card game against the Rangers before losing a five-game Division Series against the Yankees.
However, examining extra-innings success through a slightly different prism offers a more promising picture for the Red Sox.
Since 1969, 24 teams have reached the playoffs with an extra-inning winning percentage of .750 or greater. Of those, five won the World Series (1984 Tigers, 11-2; 1998 Yankees, 9-2; 1987 Twins, 9-2; 1999 Yankees, 7-2; 1992 Blue Jays, 7-2). The 1987 Twins likely wouldn’t have won the AL West without their extra-innings success.
Ultimately, there are few precedents for playoff teams that closely parallel what the 2017 Red Sox have done in extras and the degree to which they’ve relied on that odd kind of success. That fact alone makes this group fascinatingly puzzling, one that defies patterns rather than falling into them, and ultimately underscoring the fact that there is a great unknown ahead.