The Yankees and Red Sox did not even play their first of 18 regular-season games until June 25 — nearly halfway through the schedule. From that point through the end of the year, more than one out of every five Yankee games (21.6 percent) were against Boston.
Somehow in that window, The Rivals produced two wildly different results. The Red Sox won the first seven times they played and nine of the initial 11. The Yankees swept three-game series in The Bronx in August and in Boston in September to finish on a six-game winning streak against Boston.
But the Red Sox did enough early damage to win the season series 10-9. That is why Tuesday’s game is at Fenway Park, though both teams finished 92-70 overall. Can the Yankees, after spotting Boston seven wins, tie the 2021 season series at 10-10 and advance to a second straight division series against Tampa Bay?
With the help of an advanced scout and coach all with lots of reps versus Boston, a scouting look at the Red Sox:
What does the six-game winning streak versus Boston mean? If anything the 2021 season series should provide a reminder how quickly the narrative can change within a series. And this is one game. And one game for it all between New York and Boston could produce heroes so unlikely they end up Yankee managers — hello there, Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone.
The Yankees did sweep three games in Fenway less than two weeks ago. But Boston led after seven innings in the final two and it is a strong possibility that the relievers who blew up those games for the Red Sox will have nothing to do with a single game Tuesday.
If there is one item the Yankees could take out of the six-game winning streak it is how they have subdued the Red Sox attack. Boston did not score more than three runs in any of those games. The Red Sox’s slash line in those six games was .228/.294/.337 for a .631 OPS (Clint Frazier’s OPS this year was .633).
Our pitching coach said, “You have to be good with breaking balls against [the Red Sox]. They are a notorious bad breaking-ball hitting team. They will kill bad breaking balls. Guys like [Xander] Bogaerts, [J.D.] Martinez, [Hunter] Renfroe and [Alex] Verdugo to a certain extent. Getting ahead of them is very important because behind in the count, they are a big chase team. They will vacate the strike zone when you get ahead of them.”
Rafael Devers is like nuclear waste. The Yankees will want to avoid him. That will be even truer if another big hitter, Martinez, who injured his ankle in the final regular-season game, is compromised or out. Boston has a lot of good hitters with Bogaerts’ bat-to-ball skills, Bobby Dalbec’s raw might and Enrique Hernandez’s moxie. But Devers’ lefty bat is the most lethal and the most likely to break a game open.
The scout mentioned Devers’ ability to extend at-bats even when falling behind and added, “What he does really well at home is he takes pitches in the middle and inside-outs them and uses the Monster to his advantage. Anything on the outer third is not a safe zone because he can do that so well [at Fenway].”
Devers went into this season 0-for-7 with three strikeouts versus Gerrit Cole, then hit three homers in a 4-for-11 stretch against the ace righty this season. The Yankee pen very much can come into play in trying to neutralize Devers. He is 0-for-12 with one walk and five strikeouts versus Luis Severino and 0-for-6 with two whiffs against Wandy Peralta. It is well remembered that Devers turned a game around when he took a left-on-left fastball from Aroldis Chapman for an opposite-field homer in their first confrontation in 2017. He then singled in their second. But since then, he is 1-for-13 off the Yankee closer with four strikeouts.
“He’s the guy in the lineup you don’t want to beat you,” the coach said. “That is a lot easier said than done. He is dynamic in a lot of ways. He is not just a pull hitter. He has power to all fields. He can get a bit undisciplined in big spots, but then you see him stay on a split and kill it [to decide Sunday’s game with a two-run homer].”
That was a two-run homer by Devers in the ninth inning off Washington’s Kyle Finnegan. It broke a 5-5 tie and assured Boston would not have to compete in a play-in to get to Tuesday’s wild-card game. It was Devers’ second homer of the game and third in two games.
The Cora Factor
Alex Cora is a factor. The Rays own space in the Yankee headspace. So does the Red Sox manager. Cora seems to annoy the Yankees and, at times, distract them.
Even though the game is at Fenway, Cora will know the team with the pressure on it is the Yankees. The Red Sox were supposed to be more in a retooling state this year. This is already a successful season for Boston. The Yankees were built to win a championship. Now. Expect Cora to try to push Yankee buttons where he can.
The biggest problem there is he does not possess the offensive team to really do that. The Red Sox hardly utilize bunts. No team tried fewer steals of second than Boston’s 40 — though the scout warned to keep an eye on Bogaerts (3) and Christian Vazquez (2) trying to sneak steal third if the opportunity arises. But no one should be surprised to see Cora put a runner or two in motion in obvious hitter counts to try to get the suspect Yankee defense to react.
And the track record is evident about how Cora will use his bullpen in big games. The Red Sox relief corps was the weak link of this squad. It was why the Yankees were able to rally against Boston at Fenway recently — their pen was stellar and the Boston pen stunk.
But Garrett Whitlock (pectoral strain) was not available in those games. He returned in Game 162 to pitch a perfect seventh inning on just 10 pitches. The righty led the majors in outings of more than three outs this season with 31. He held the Yankees to 4-for-26 in 2021 with no extra-base hits and 11 strikeouts. He was one of the most valuable relievers in the league. His loss in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees to the Red Sox is a huge reason why the Yanks are dealing with Boston on Tuesday night.
Whitlock and perhaps Hirokazu Sawamura and (close your eyes, Met fans) Hansel Robles will be the only traditional relievers who Cora uses after Nathan Eovaldi. Deposed closer Matt Barnes may have become too untrustworthy. Adam Ottavino’s postseason track record (12 games, 7.04 ERA) is poor and he was not good down the stretch (9.72 ERA in his final 11 outings with five homers, including a key, two-run shot to Giancarlo Stanton on Sept. 26).
In winning the 2018 World Series, Cora deployed starters such as Eovaldi constantly in the postseason to camouflage a worrisome pen. On Sunday in a must-win to get in, Cora used starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Nick Pivetta to pitch the final two innings. It should surprise no one if those two and Tanner Houck are warming at some point Tuesday.
The Other Starter
Cole was signed to pitch just this kind of game. But did you know that Eovaldi — in FanGraphs’ version — led the AL in Wins Above Replacement at 5.6 and Cole was second at 5.3?
Eovaldi showed in 2018 that he can handle an October spotlight, posting a 1.61 ERA in 22 ¹/₃ postseason innings. That helped him score a four-year, $68 million free-agent deal to stay in Boston.
Eovaldi already has faced the Yankees seven times this year. In the first five, he held them to seven runs in 31 ¹/₃ innings. He was then beat up for seven runs in 2 ²/₃ innings Sept. 24 at Fenway. Aaron Judge doubled and walked in that game and is 9-for-23 with three extra-base hits versus Eovaldi. Stanton is 9-for-30 with four extra-base hits, including a homer in that Sept. 24 game. The Yankee offense pretty much all season has gone as Judge and Stanton have gone. That duo combined to hit .280 with an .894 OPS. The rest of the offense: .228/.689.
Eovaldi is a full-repertoire starter, but a hitter mainly has to gear for hard. His 96.9 mph fastball average was fifth best in the majors among qualified pitchers (Cole at 97.7 was second). He teams that with high-velocity sliders and splits, though our scout noted Eovaldi has learned to take something off of his slider and use it sometimes in place of a cutter.
The Chicago Connection
The Yankees traded for Anthony Rizzo at the deadline, topping the offer made by the Red Sox. That was perceived at the time as a huge difference-maker. The Red Sox settled for Kyle Schwarber, who was not healthy at the time due to a hamstring injury and had no history of playing first base.
Schwarber did not make his Red Sox debut until Aug. 13, but his offensive impact has been significant. He had a .957 OPS with Boston and his closing 14-game kick was a slash line of .342/.500/.684 with three homers and 10 RBIs.
The Yanks like what they have gotten out of Rizzo on both sides of the ball, but his offensive game was not the same after he missed time after contracting COVID-19. Rizzo did single and double in his two at-bats against Eovaldi on Sept. 24.
Both have had lots of postseason at-bats with the Cubs; Rizzo managing just a .205 average and .654 OPS in 39 playoff games to Schwarber’s .288/.981 in 24 playoff games.
One of the subplots to this one-game sudden death Tuesday is how these two members of the 2016 champion Cubs will impact this game.