NEW YORK — They’d waited for two years and through two quick exits from the American League Division Series for this moment, and so another 63 seconds wasn’t going to dampen the fun.
The Red Sox waited a bit awkwardly through those moments of suspended celebration, players filtering toward the field with a bit of confusion while waiting for replay to confirm whether Steve Pearce had held the first base bag with his toe for the final out. The scene was made stranger by the need for trainers to attend to third baseman Eduardo Nunez, who had injured himself while readying to celebrate after his fine play to sling the ball across the diamond for what may have been the last out.
“I think I would have probably had to go to third base,” said Brock Holt. “[But] when they showed the replay, it was pretty clear he was out. We could kind of breathe a sigh of relief and begin the celebration.”
“That’s 2018 baseball. You have to wait for the replay,” added Game 4 winning pitcher Rick Porcello. “It didn’t take away from our celebration. We felt pretty damn good about it.”
Mercifully, it took barely a minute for confirmation of the out call at first, and so, at 11:35 p.m., it was official: It was time for the Red Sox to celebrate at Yankee Stadium. Again.
The notion that such a thing is now familiar is still a bit remarkable. The Red Sox have showered Yankee Stadium with champagne four times in the past 15 years: First when advancing in the 2004 American League Championship Series, again on the nights when they clinched the American League East title in both 2016 and 2018, and now with a four-game series victory in New York — including back-to-back victories in the Bronx — to advance to the ALCS.
All the same, the heart-attack ninth inning — in which Craig Kimbrel inherited a three-run lead but had given back two of the scores before securing the 4-3 victory — had been enough to inspire memories of a slightly more distant, less elated time.
Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said that he spent the ninth having “flashbacks” to the Game 7 loss in the 2003 ALCS, memories amplified by the texts he was receiving from former Red Sox employees who’d been there when Aaron Boone was the agent of Red Sox woe as a player. Similar thoughts of that series had echoed in the mind of team chairman Tom Werner.
“Painful,” he said. “I really thought they were going to catch up.”
“We finally broke through,” said Porcello. “You don’t want to miss out on these opportunities . . . We still have a lot of work in front of us, but this is a good ball club. It’s not easy to come into Yankee Stadium, take two games in a row. The first one, we smeared them [in a 16-1 win in Game 3]. The second one, it was a tight ballgame. We won in two completely different fashions. It felt good. It was emotional.”
Porcello grew up in nearby New Jersey. Surely he’d spent years daydreaming about having such a performance as his clinching start in Game 4 while growing up?
“I never envisioned myself pitching in Yankee Stadium doing this. I was just thinking I’d be lucky to play college ball when I was 15, 16 years old,” he said. “[But] I did have that reflection today before the game, thinking about the opportunity we had tonight. I’m glad we made the most of it.”
The Red Sox continued to make the most of it in the visitors’ clubhouse, which had been transformed with some peril. In 2004, plastic masked just the lockers, and so the carpet at the old Yankee Stadium got flooded with alcohol from the Red Sox’ celebration. When Kevin Millar entered the same room prior to Opening Day in 2005, he sniffed the air, and pronounced proudly that the room still smelled of victory.
The Yankee Stadium staff no longer affords such an outcome. The plastic that once ran only vertically from the ceiling to the carpet and protected the lockers has now been extended across the floor as well, creating pools of champagne and corks across the floor that leave both reveling players and members of the organization wobbling as if on skates for the first time.
Yet the possibility of slipping entered only minimally in the minds of players. The fact that this core group was largely the same as the ones that saw the last two seasons end so quickly created a collective sense that a ceiling had been shattered. The team no longer would have to apologize sheepishly for strong regular seasons that seemed somewhat empty less than a week into the playoffs.
“We were stuck here for a while,” said Xander Bogaerts. “It feels good to get past that.”
The feeling of accomplishment was mixed with the adrenaline and heart palpitations borne of the final innings. The entry into the game of ace Chris Sale for a scoreless inning of relief in the eighth had contributed to a sense of the distinctiveness of the postseason.
“I got jitters from it,” reliever Matt Barnes, who threw a perfect sixth inning, recalled of Sale’s entry into the game for the eighth. “I was like, ‘This is sick!’ ”
“[The changing roles] might seem like chaos if it’s August or the regular season, but in the postseason, who doesn’t want Chris Sale pitching the eighth inning? Who doesn’t want your best guys out there? It makes a lot of sense when you think about it that way,” said Porcello. “It’s not chaos. It’s just guys playing roles they don’t normally play because the only thing that [expletive] matters is winning.”
That, noted the players, is how manager Alex Cora handled the series, how he’s handled the team all year. Though a rookie in the role, the 42-year-old received raves that flowed almost as freely as the liquids flying across the clubhouse.
“After we interviewed him, I went back to Dave and said, ‘Dave, he’s a little confident — overconfident,’ ” said Red Sox principal owner John Henry. “I think that he was born to be a manager. He’s a natural leader. I think he knew that he was ready for this job.”
Raquel Ferreira, the vice president of major league and minor league operations who is like an adopted family member to most players from the moment they turn professional, sought out the players whom she’d known since they were teenagers — Christian Vazquez, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Bogaerts, and so many others on a largely homegrown team — for hugs.
Almost invariably, Ferreira is a target to be doused in celebrations. This time, she managed to avoid the fate.
“I usually get drenched,” she said. “[Vazquez] caught me, and I lied and said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t have a change of clothes for the plane.’ They believed me.”
Players were divided as to whether to hoist bottles of bubbly or aluminum bottles of beer. Either way, it seemed as if roughly 60 percent of any liquid had made its way to the head of a sopping Andrew Benintendi, who wandered through the clubhouse as if a waterfall remained in place over his head.
The celebration wasn’t confined to those who’d been part of the previous two years of division series stumbles. Ryan Brasier started the year without a job in any professional organization before signing a minor league deal with the Red Sox early in spring training.
“I never thought at the end of February before I signed that I’d be throwing in a clinching game of the ALDS for the best team in baseball,” said Brasier, who pitched a scoreless seventh inning on Tuesday.
Ian Kinsler had been in the center of the fascinating maneuvers of Cora in Games 3 and 4, having sat for Game 3 in favor of Holt — who hit for the cycle — and then reclaiming the start at second base from Holt and delivering what proved a pivotal two-out RBI double in the third inning against CC Sabathia before scoring on a Nunez single.
“It’s the best feeling in the world. We all believe in each other. We all respect each other. And we’re here to win a championship. That’s the bottom line. No one care who gets it done,” said Kinsler. “No one cares who the hero is. We’re here to win a game, regardless of who’s in the lineup.”
At 12:10 a.m., the soundtrack to the celebration took on a tongue-in-cheek edge. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared in the Sox clubhouse, a nod to Aaron Judge walking through the Fenway Park concourse after Game 2 with the Yankees’ signature victory song playing on a portable speaker. The Sox were delighted to appropriate the song — while sprinkling in a healthy dose of selections from New York icon Jay-Z.
“Coming in here, Yankee Stadium, a lot of guys doubted us. I had the off day and I turned on the TV, everything here is Yankees winning in four, Yankees in four. I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ ” said Bogaerts. “How can we have 108 wins and they’ll be like the Yankees are going to win in four? I don’t understand . . . No one is picking the Red Sox but all of us in here picked ourselves and it was fun. It was fun.”
So, too, were the hard-earned revels that ran past midnight in the Bronx, before finally, at 12:20 a.m., the plastic could be peeled off of the perimeter of the clubhouse. With a 1:30 a.m. bus scheduled, the players retreated to shower and change in advance of the flight back to Boston, and on, finally after three years, to deeper October.
“It doesn’t get much better than this. This is what we’ve all wanted our entire lives, so to get it is special,” said Sale. “We’re not done yet, either. This is the first step.”