BOSTON -- Two outs. Nobody on base. Top of the eighth. Up by a run. Just four outs away from what would have been a satisfying victory.
While Giancarlo Stanton’s titanic grand slam is what will be on most of the highlight reels from the 5-3 loss to the Yankees at Fenway Park -- which put the two rivals into a tie for the two American League Wild Card spots -- what hurt the Red Sox were the free passes that led up to it.
Houck was ahead of Brett Gardner 1-2 and threw three straight balls. A putaway pitch would have put the Red Sox back in the dugout. Instead, Aaron Judge loomed. Houck walked him, too -- after being even with him at 2-2.
“We had Gardner with two strikes. We didn’t put him away. We had Judge with two strikes. We didn’t put him away,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
Suddenly, Cora, who planned on using Houck to close out the game with a three-inning save, had to pivot.
With the left-handed-hitting Anthony Rizzo looming, Cora went to lefty Hernandez. (The Red Sox learned before the game that the team’s top southpaw reliever Josh Taylor was dealing with a back issue that will require an MRI on Sunday.)
Not only did he fall behind 3-1 in the count, but Hernandez plunked Rizzo to load the bases for Stanton.
Given the three-batter minimum rule, Cora was boxed into an uncomfortable spot of Hernandez needing to face right-handed slugger Stanton.
“I mean, there’s two outs. We gotta get [Rizzo] out there,” said Cora. “That’s why we went with Darwinzon, because we do believe he can get the lefty and the righty out. It just didn’t happen. He wasn’t able to pound the strike zone with the lefty.”
All day, the Yankees seemed on the edge of a breakthrough. And it came when Hernandez threw a first-pitch, 94.3 mph heater right down the middle and Stanton scorched it at 114.1 mph off the bat with a Statcast-projected distance of 452 feet.
“Darwinzon fell behind right away, 2-0, had the swing and miss, and then he misfired [to Rizzo],” said Cora. “A tough one, of course, but we have to show up tomorrow. We know where we’re at, and we’ll be ready to play.”
As Stanton’s missile soared out of Fenway, the air came out of the ballpark a bit, taking away the good vibes from what had been a festive Saturday for the packed house of 36,103.
But in the ninth, when the Red Sox had the tying run at the plate with one out, it got loud again.
“I think they were locked into the game,” Cora said of the crowd. “I think tonight, everybody was locked in. It just happened that we didn’t win the game, but it was a great night, great afternoon at Fenway Park.”
Nick Pivetta put Boston in good position to win the game, holding the Yankees to three hits and one run over 5 1/3 innings, walking none and striking out seven. The bullpen just couldn’t hold onto the lead.
With stud rookie Garrett Whitlock on the 10-day injured list with a right pectoral strain, Houck (also a rookie) is being thrust into some high-leverage spots in the middle of a pennant race.
“I need to still get ready for my next outing. I don’t know when that’s going to be, but if I’m sitting there and dwelling on the past, it’s only going to hurt me,” said Houck. “If I just keep moving forward and just push myself, it won’t sting as bad. It will still be in the back of my mind, but it’s more motivation to go and continue to work and pitch myself.”
In the span of less than 24 hours, the Red Sox went from a seven-game winning streak to two tough losses to the Yankees.
But the Red Sox still hold their fate in front of them. A win on Sunday would put them up by a game on their rivals with a week to go and six road games left against non-contenders Baltimore and Washington.
Meanwhile, the Yankees play three in Toronto and three at home against the Rays.
And on top of that, the Red Sox have already clinched the head-to-head series with the Yankees. That means that if the squads were to finish with the same record and ahead of the other contenders, the Wild Card Game will be played at Fenway instead of Yankee Stadium.
Despite how this series has gone so far, that’s exactly how they want it.