Devers' heroics clinch top WC spot for Boston

October 4th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- An unexpected early knockout of ace Chris Sale? A four-run deficit with 15 outs to go? J.D. Martinez being forced out of the game early with a sprained left ankle?

These were annoyances for the Red Sox, but they were obstacles that were overcome by a team that has proved its resilience many times over during a stressful stretch run.

Rafael Devers, the 24-year-old hitting star, carried the day for Boston, delivering two home runs, including a 447-foot rocket to center with one out in the top of the ninth that snapped a tie and led his team to a drama-filled 7-5 victory over the Nationals, securing a postseason berth for the Red Sox.

As he always does, Devers was talking to himself leading up to his biggest at-bat of the season.

“I just kept talking to myself, ‘I’ve got to help the team, I’ve got to help the team. I’ve got to come through for our team.’ And we came through,” said Devers. “Obviously this is just our first celebration. But with God leading the way, we’ll win the next game, and we’ll get to the [Division Series].”

Perhaps the baseball Gods wanted yet another juicy Red Sox-Yankees game in October with everything on the line.

For the Red Sox, the reward for coming back to win Game No. 162 was punching their ticket the American League Wild Card Game as the top Wild Card club and No. 4 seed in the AL bracket.

In so doing, the stage has been set for the latest chapter in baseball’s most storied rivalry.

Yes, on Tuesday night at Fenway Park, it will be the 92-70 Yankees at the 92-70 Red Sox. Boston earned home-field advantage by narrowly beating New York, 10-9, in the season series.

The winner of that showdown will move on to the AL Division Series to face the AL East champion Rays. The loser will go home.

“We’ll be ready,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “It should be fun. I think baseball enjoys it. I think our fans will show up on Tuesday and make Fenway feel like home. We wanted to play at home for a lot of reasons. At the same time, having that last at-bat is always important. It should be a fun atmosphere at Fenway Park. Always amazing.”

The day started with the potential for chaos in the standings, as there were scenarios that could have had three-way or four-way ties. But with Boston and New York both prevailing, Toronto and Seattle were both eliminated.

“I mean, that’s why I didn’t talk about scenarios,” said Cora. “Taking a point from [Terry Francona], ‘I’m not that smart to go through the whole thing.’ When this thing was in our hands, you win and you’re in. You believe in the team, you believe in the group. Although it didn’t look promising at the beginning, you still feel like we have a shot. Avoiding that mess [was] great.”

Yet the day started in a mess for the Red Sox. Sale had his toughest day since returning from Tommy John surgery, throwing 62 pitches in 2 1/3 innings, as he allowed four hits and two runs while walking three (one intentional). He left with the Red Sox down 2-0 and Hirokazu Sawamura got the lefty out of the third-inning jam by getting a huge, 6-4-3 double play.

By the fifth inning, the Sox were down, 5-1, and thinking they might be playing a tiebreaker game on Monday against the Blue Jays.

But then came a furious three-inning rally in the seventh inning. Alex Verdugo came through with the biggest hit aside from Devers, rifling a double into the gap in right-center in the seventh that tied the game at 5.

“I remember looking up and seeing that the Yankees won in the bottom of the ninth and I was like, ‘All right, we’ve gotta go boys. Let’s go.’ Sure enough, we ended up having some really, really good at-bats with teammates coming up huge,” said Verdugo.

Other than Garrett Richards, who gave up three runs in the fifth, the bullpen did the job all day to keep the Sox in the game and give them a chance after Sale’s untimely quick exit. Eduardo Rodriguez came out of the ‘pen on one day of rest after firing five innings on Friday night, and pitched a 1-2-3 eighth.

That left Devers with a golden opportunity to put his team in front, and he absolutely unloaded (exit velocity of 113.4-mph) for home run No. 38 on a fastball on the lower, outside portion of the strike zone. Devers has been getting big hits for the Red Sox since he was 20, so his latest batch of heroics -- which also included a homer in Saturday’s nail-biter -- shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise.

“It’s just, he’s able to slow it down and he enjoys it too. This morning he showed up and was playing cards and we made a friendly bet on that match today, Man City and Liverpool,” Cora said of Devers. “He was so relaxed. He works on his craft so hard. It seems like sometimes he’s out of control. In that at-bat, he swings at a breaking ball and almost falls down and flips the bat and talks to himself. But he was able to stay in the moment. He got a pitch to hit and didn’t try to do too much and crushed it to center field.”

Still, the Red Sox needed three more outs. And they turned to … Nick Pivetta.

Yes, the same Pivetta who had made 30 starts this season and no bullpen appearances. The righty took down Washington in order, capped by clinching the playoffs with a strikeout of Juan Soto, one of the best hitters in the game. Now, it’s on to the postseason for a team virtually nobody predicted to be there before the season started.

“Always resilient, man. Always resilient,” said Pivetta. “Never giving in, never giving up. We fought really hard to get to this point, and we're a bunch of fighters and grinders on this team, so we're going to keep going out there and keep this thing going.”