‘This was goal No. 1:’ Red Sox clinch third straight AL East title
NEW YORK — The best player on the best team had his best game of the season on Thursday night and the Red Sox clinched the American League East.
Mookie Betts had a game befitting a Most Valuable Player, driving in five runs as the Sox came back to beat the Yankees, 11-6, and wrap up the division.
Betts was 4 for 5 with two doubles, a home run, and three runs scored. His skyscraper three-run homer off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning was the clinching shot in the clincher.
“He showed up when we needed him and he’s been there all year,” teammate Andrew Benintendi said. “Mookie sets the table and he definitely did that tonight.”
Steven Wright pitched three scoreless innings for the victory, settling down what was turning into a wild game long enough for his teammates to get to the Yankees’ bullpen.
The Sox will open the postseason at Fenway Park on Oct. 5, likely against the winner of the wild-card game on Oct. 3.
When Craig Kimbrel recorded the final out, a strikeout of Giancarlo Stanton, he embraced catcher Sandy Leon. Their teammates soon joined them on the mound, but there was no raucous celebration.
Even in the clubhouse, the requisite spraying of champagne ended fairly quickly.
These Sox have much bigger goals in mind.
“There’s a lot more to be accomplished,” Wright said. “This was a huge step in the right direction. But it’s just a start. When we set off in spring training this was goal No. 1.”
It’s the third division title in a row for the Sox, a first in franchise history. Their 104 victories are one shy of matching the team record set in 1912.
The Sox took over first place in the division on July 2 and ran away from the rival Yankees. They have 290 victories over the last three seasons.
It has been a masterpiece season for Alex Cora, the first rookie manager to win 104 games since Ralph Houk finished 109-53 with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and the 1961 Yankees.
With nine games remaining, Cora could track that record down.
“I came here with an idea. We did it as a staff,” said Cora, who was a runner-up to manage several teams before the Sox hired him. “I thank ownership for giving me a shot, man. I never thought it was going to happen at one point.
“That’s a great group. Now we have a shot; we have a shot to win 11 games in October.”
The first inning took 39 minutes as 60 pitches were thrown. The Red Sox emerged from the morass with a 1-0 lead as Betts lined a double off the fence in left field and scored on a single by J.D. Martinez.
The lead grew to 3-0 in the second inning on a two-run, two-out single by Betts.
Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez started to unravel in the second inning when he walked Gary Sanchez and Luke Voit hit his third home run of the series, a shot to center field.
The Sox got a run back in the third when Brock Holt homered deep into the second deck in right field. Masahiro Tanaka had allowed three runs over 21 innings in three prior starts this month. The Sox matched that after three innings.
Rodriguez left two runners stranded in the third inning then retired the first two batters of the fourth. The lefthander then walked Andrew McCutchen, Aaron Judge, and Aaron Hicks to load the bases.
Judge, who was 0 for 9 in his career against Rodriguez, fell behind, 0 and 2, and worked a 10-pitch walk, fouling off four pitches before Rodriguez missed low with a 3-and-2 fastball.
With Rodriguez at 100 pitches, Cora went to Heath Hembree.
Hembree has been adept at stranding inherited runners for much of the season. This time he hung a slider that Stanton lined into the right-field stands for his 35th home run.
Rodriguez walked seven in 3⅔ innings and four scored. The last Red Sox pitcher with that many or more walks in as few innings was Clay Buchholz, who walked eight in three innings against Atlanta on May 26, 2014.
The Sox came from 6-0 down to win that game.
Trailing, 6-4, the Sox rallied against the Yankees. Betts doubled again in the fifth, moved to third when Benintendi singled, and scored when Martinez grounded into a double play.
The Sox tied it when Jackie Bradley Jr. led off the seventh inning with a home run to right field against Chad Green.
After Christian Vazquez singled, the Yankees turned to Dellin Betances. He struck out Betts, but Benintendi doubled to send Vazquez to third.
Martinez was walked intentionally to load the bases for Xander Bogaerts. His sacrifice fly to center field scored pinch runner Tzu-Wei Lin. A second run scored when Hicks’s throw to third base bounced into the stands.
“They don’t stop playing,” Cora said of his team.
As the Sox were coming back, Wright held down the Yankees. He retired nine of the 10 batters he faced and threw 28 of 38 pitches for strikes.
The knuckleballer has pitched in relief seven times since coming off the disabled list on Sept. 1 and thrown 10 scoreless innings. As the postseason approaches, he is stepping forward as a reliable bullpen option.
When Betts slugged his home run off Chapman, the game was secure.
“I’ve had some good games. I just do what I can to help the team win,” Betts said. “But there was joy in this moment.”