NEW YORK -- The five-out save is something Craig Kimbrel had never accomplished in his career, and no one had even asked him to do it since May 28, 2016, when a six-out save opportunity fell apart for him in Toronto.But Red Sox manager Alex Cora thought that Wednesday night
NEW YORK -- The five-out save is something Craig Kimbrel had never accomplished in his career, and no one had even asked him to do it since May 28, 2016, when a six-out save opportunity fell apart for him in Toronto.
But Red Sox manager Alex Cora thought that Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium was the right time to lean on his elite closer for the toughest of save chances -- with runners at the corners and one out and clinging to a one-run lead with the top of New York's batting order looming.
It didn't work. The hottest team in baseball got hotter by surging back against Kimbrel and handing the Red Sox an agonizing 9-6 defeat.
Brett Gardner smashed a two-run triple and Aaron Judge followed by testing the maximum decibel level at Yankee Stadium with a two-run homer to center. A once-promising night went bad very fast for the Red Sox.
"I think any time we're playing these guys, be ready for multiple [innings]," said Kimbrel. "I wasn't able to do it tonight. I felt great tonight. Just two pitches that they put good wood on and I wasn't able to hold it where it was."
For the Yankees, it was the continuation of a torrid streak that includes eight wins in a row (all against teams that started the game tied or in sole possession of first place) and 17 wins in the last 18 games, something the storied franchise hadn't done since 1953. The Red Sox started this season by taking 17 of 19, so they can relate to the run their rivals are on.
"They're playing good ball," said Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. "Both of these games have been close, they've come down to the wire. We've got to keep our heads up and battle and come back tomorrow."
As for the decision to bring on Kimbrel when he did, Cora had eyed the matchup with Gardner all along. He was just hoping it would have been a cleaner handoff.
Matt Barnes opened the bottom of the eighth by giving up a double to Neil Walker. After a groundout pushed Walker to third, Barnes walked Gleyber Torres.
Out of the dugout came Cora to bring on his closer, who hadn't pitched since notching his 300th career save four days earlier.
"With Gardner coming up and then those guys coming in, we talked about it before the game," Cora said. "We're not making it up during the game. We have a plan before, and today was a day we were like, 'You know what? He's rested enough, and we know they've been coming back against a lot of teams.' We saw what they did against Cleveland. So, that was his spot.
"It [would] probably be better with only a man at first and two outs, of course, but he's one of the best closers in the game, if not the best, and we gave him the ball and he did his best."
It seems nearly impossible to get the best of the Yankees these days.
For the first time since March 30, the Red Sox are in second place in the American League East. Backed by their surge, the Yankees have taken a one-game lead on their rivals heading into Thursday night's rubber match.
Hanley Ramirez staked Boston to a 6-5 lead with a towering two-run homer to left in the seventh.
Boston had a chance to extend the edge in the eighth with runners on second and third and nobody out, but the Sox couldn't score. Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez both struck out. Yankees manager Aaron Boone issued an intentional walk of Mookie Betts. Andrew Benintendi, who homered earlier in the game -- his sixth in 15 career games at Yankee Stadium -- grounded out.
That squandered opportunity wound up being costly.
"Huge," said Cora. "Second and third, infield in, you have to put the ball in play regardless of results, and we didn't. I think we paid the price there."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Barnes struggles: The whole night could have ended differently if Barnes had been able to create a sturdy bridge to Kimbrel. Instead, the righty fell behind 2-0 to Walker, who smashed a leadoff double to put the big rally in motion.
"I fell behind all three hitters, which obviously isn't ideal in that situation," Barnes said. "Made some good pitches to get back in the count with Walker. The fastball up was maybe not as up as I would have liked it to be. That is not what you want to do. My job when I go out there is to keep him out of the game until the ninth. In doing so, it means you've done your job. That is not what we're looking for."
After their sizzling start to the season, the Red Sox are just 8-9 in their last 17 games, which has coincided with the stellar run the Yankees are on. This was Boston's 12th loss in 16 games at Yankee Stadium dating back to July 17, 2016.
HE SAID IT
"I don't really think anyone was thinking about a 7 1/2-game lead. Right now, we're just thinking about our team and playing good ball. As long as we do that we'll be right there with them all year. We knew it was going to be close throughout the entire year and come down to the end of the year. It's still early. You hate to lose games like this, but we're not really worried about them; we're worried about us." -- Kimbrel
The Red Sox go against a familiar foe in the finale of this three-game series in Yankees left-hander Carsten Sabathia in an MLB Network Showcase game at 7:05 p.m. ET. While the Red Sox sometimes got the best of Sabathia earlier in his career, that has not been the case recently. In the last five matchups dating back to Sept. 29, 2016, Sabathia is 5-0 with a 1.08 ERA. Boston counters with lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who has been inconsistent (3-0, 5.29 ERA) since coming back from the disabled list.
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.