“I was out,” Gleyber Torres said, flatly, and the replay confirmed what he knew. Steve Pearce kept his foot on first base. A furious comeback fell short in the bottom of the ninth, Craig Kimbrel held on, and the Yankees’ season expired with a 4-3 loss in Game 4 of the American League division series. That makes nine seasons in a row without a championship, and another Red Sox celebration on Yankee ground.
“That’s the one team that you don’t want to lose to,” said Brett Gardner, the veteran Yankees outfielder. “We hate losing to them, and we love beating them. They just had our number this year. They have a great team, and we just weren’t able to do enough to overcome them.”
Until the frantic finish, the standout moment of the rivals’ first postseason duel in 14 years was more comedic than dramatic: the Yankees’ backup catcher, Austin Romine, allowing a home run to Boston’s Brock Holt on Monday for the first cycle in playoff history. As a lingering image from this series, it will not inspire screenplays.
The Red Sox are onto bigger things — an A.L. Championship Series date with the Houston Astros, the defending World Series champions, starting Saturday night at Fenway Park. The Yankees will scatter for the winter, with 100 regular-season victories to keep them warm. But how much did they really improve?
This lopsided series aside, the rivalry is hot again because the Yankees so clearly measure themselves against the Red Sox, even more than in the recent past. The rest of the division cannot keep up. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles are rebuilding, and the Tampa Bay Rays are plucky and dangerous, but not a superpower.
The Red Sox are. They backed up their franchise-record 108 victories by pushing aside the Yankees and exposing the limits of their vaunted offense. The Yankees led the majors in homers last season, added Giancarlo Stanton in a trade, and promptly set a major league record for homers this season, with 267.
But just like the team whose record they broke — the 1997 Seattle Mariners — the Yankees went bust in the division series, confounded by a solid pitching staff. Except for their Game 2 outburst against a rattled David Price, the Yankees were punchless when it mattered most.
“One of their goals in this series was to keep us in the ballpark, and then coming in here, where we’re so good at that, they were able to do it,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “Credit to them for being able to hold us down.”
It was the first time since early April that the Yankees had failed to hit a homer in consecutive games at Yankee Stadium.
“We have to keep them in the ballpark — that’s the most important thing,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora had said before the series, and he was right.
The Yankees had the pitching talent to make a deep postseason run, despite a poor showing in this series. But they hit only .249 this season, the worst average among baseball’s 10 playoff teams. If they did not hit a homer, they often struggled for hits. Red Sox starters Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello combined for 12 innings at Yankee Stadium, allowing only nine hits and two runs to thwart the Yankees’ plan.
“Obviously our goal in this series was to try to get into that bullpen as soon as possible,” Gardner said. “When a guy like Porcello and Eovaldi gives them that length, it’s kind of hard to do.”
The Yankees were 4 for 26 with runners in scoring position in the series and hit .214 overall. Batting average was an overrated statistic for years, mainly because it obscured other factors crucial to run production. Now, perhaps, it is undervalued.
Since the A.L. adopted the designated hitter in 1973, the Yankees have hit for a lower batting average than .249 just three times: in 1990, when they lost 95 games, and in 2013 and 2014, when they missed the playoffs.
Each of the top seven teams in batting average this season won at least 90 games. It sounds so simple to say, but hits remain really important — and this is where the Yankees and the Red Sox wildly diverged. Last season, the Yankees had two more hits than the Red Sox. This season, the Red Sox had 135 more hits than the Yankees.
The Yankees’ pitchers trailed only Houston’s staff in strikeouts, but their hitters whiffed too often, a trait that good pitchers often exploit in October. The Yankees ranked ninth in the major leagues in strikeouts by their hitters, while the Red Sox’ offense ranked 26th. And Boston had almost twice as many stolen bases as the Yankees — 125 to 63.
“Last night I had one home run, but we really scored 16 runs without hitting the long ball,” Holt said, drenched in bubbly in the joyous Red Sox clubhouse on Tuesday night. “But we’ve got guys that can leave at any time, and we’ve got guys that run the bases. We can beat you in a lot of ways. It’s a fun offense to be a part of.”
It sure seems that way. The Red Sox hit .268 this season — nine points better than the next-closest team in the majors, the Cleveland Indians. Boston finished ninth in homers but scored the most runs.
“If you’re a starter facing their lineup, you face them three times without giving up a run, you’ve done something amazing, because they usually chip away and score runs on you,” Yankees reliever David Robertson said. “They grind out at-bats, foul balls off, get on second base and just cause havoc. If you’re not on top of your game, they can put up the runs on you real quick.”
The Yankees had a fine season, to be sure. Miguel Andujar and Torres confirmed the Yankees’ hopes for them; they are, indeed, high-impact young stars. In Boone’s first season as manager, the team improved by nine wins.
Trouble is, in Cora’s first season as manager, the Red Sox improved by 15 wins. Their high-impact young stars — Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts — are further along in their primes, and all under team control for next season, too.
And while Stanton led the Yankees in home runs (38), runs batted in (100) and games played (158) while hitting .266, Boston’s new slugger, J.D. Martinez, was better. He led the majors in total bases and nearly won the Triple Crown.
“We can hit the ball out of the ballpark, which is better than it was last year, power-wise,” said Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations. “But we make contact, guys can run the bases, we’re athletic, and we’re a good defensive club. I think it’s important to go that way.”
The Red Sox have their flaws. The Yankees built a deeper bullpen, even though Boone seemed strangely hesitant to use it early in Games 3 and 4. Cora used Porcello in relief in Game 1 and Chris Sale in relief in Game 4; he might be able to survive the postseason that way, but it will not be easy.
In any case, his team — like the Astros — has earned the chance. The Red Sox ran away with the division, even with Sale limited down the stretch. Dombrowski fortified the roster with trades for Pearce, starter Nathan Eovaldi and second baseman Ian Kinsler. His counterpart with the Astros, Jeff Luhnow, added an ace last winter in Gerrit Cole, and power relievers this summer in Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna.
The Yankees’ general manager, Brian Cashman, made a series of pivotal in-season moves, trading for J.A. Happ, Zach Britton and Luke Voit. But the foundation of his team was simply not strong enough to find more than one way to beat the Red Sox.
Just as they did in the regular season, the Yankees had more strikeouts than hits in the series. Their only win came on the strength of three towering homers in Game 2 at Fenway. The Red Sox could not have been surprised. If they kept the Yankees in the ballpark, they knew they could win — and that is just what they did.