BOSTON -- With their roller-coaster campaign on the line, the Yankees attempted to pour any available ounce of luck into Fenway Park’s ancient red-brick corridors. Bucky Dent, the hero of their 1978 one-game playoff, jetted in from Florida and saw each pitch from a choice seat behind home plate. Aaron Judge carried a speaker in hopes of DJing a clubhouse celebration, and even “Bronxie the Turtle” was listed on the postseason travel roster.
Those feel-good charms were not enough to avoid one final gut punch in a year that was marked by them. Gerrit Cole recorded only six outs before handing over the baseball, Judge was tagged out at home plate after a questionable sixth-inning decision and the Yankees’ season ended with a 6-2 loss to the Red Sox in the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday evening.
“We just didn’t get the job done, all season long,” Judge said. “We’ve got to keep working. Individually and as a team, there’s a lot of things that we need to continue to work on and continue to improve to push us to the next level. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board.”
It has been a dozen years since the organization’s most recent World Series championship, and while the club has qualified for the playoffs in five consecutive years, each appearance has brought a crushing defeat. Since 2017, the Astros, Red Sox and Rays have taken turns ending the Yanks’ season, and changes will be necessary to produce a different outcome.
“The league has closed the gap on us. We have to get better,” said manager Aaron Boone, whose contract situation is uncertain. “It's not just the Red Sox and the Astros now in our league. Look at our division -- the Rays are a beast, Toronto and there's some teams in the Central that are getting better and better. Teams in the West that are better and better. That needs to be front and center as guys prepare.”
When the Yankees and Cole shook hands on their $324 million marriage early in 2020, months before the world had to incorporate Zoom into daily life, they did so with the expectation of multiple championship trophies soon delivered to East 161st Street. Cole never flinched from that, remarking that he considered the pressure to be a privilege.
Fenway’s stage did not seem to intimidate Cole, but he was either betrayed by his body -- Cole spent most of September grinding through a left hamstring injury that he repeatedly insisted was not an issue -- or a Red Sox team that enjoyed a fresh look at his arsenal 12 days earlier on that same mound, allowing them to fine-tune their approach.
“This is the worst feeling in the world,” Cole said. “It happens to 29 teams each year, going home early and not achieving your ultimate goal. There’s nothing you can do to make it feel any better. You can’t be afraid of this feeling; you’ve got to get through it to get that championship.”
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts clubbed a two-run homer in the first inning, and Kyle Schwarber hit a solo shot in the third inning off Cole, who permitted four hits over two-plus innings. Neither long ball was a cheapie: Bogaerts belted a middle-middle changeup 427 feet, and Schwarber barreled a high fastball for a 435-foot trip to the right-field seats.
Cole’s teams have lost four of his five starts in winner-take-all contests, including last year’s Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Rays. As Yogi Berra might have said, Schwarber’s homer was déjà vu all over again: Schwarber also took Cole deep in the third inning of the 2015 NL Wild Card Game, when Cole was with the Pirates and Schwarber was with the Cubs.
Yet no lead is ever considered safe at Fenway, and the Yanks were within striking distance, even with Nathan Eovaldi pounding the strike zone and retiring 11 straight batters leading into the sixth inning. Anthony Rizzo put New York on the board with a one-out homer, and Judge legged out an infield hit, prompting Boston manager Alex Cora to call upon a porous bullpen.
Giancarlo Stanton greeted Ryan Brasier with a 114.9 mph missile that pelted the Green Monster in left-center field. As Judge rounded second, third-base coach Phil Nevin pointed toward the plate.
Center fielder Kiké Hernández fed the relay throw to Bogaerts, who fired a strike to Kevin Plawecki from the lip of the infield grass beyond second base. Instead of runners at first and third with one out, the Yanks had Stanton at second with two outs, to be turned aside when Joey Gallo popped out.
“You’ve got to take chances,” Judge said. “That didn’t win or lose this game for us. There’s so many different things I can go through. I was trying to score there, and I just didn’t get the job done, getting my hand in there in time on the slide.”
Alex Verdugo stroked a run-scoring double in the sixth inning and a two-run single in the seventh as Boston pulled away. Having seen two drives hit the wall, Stanton went to right field in the ninth for a solo homer -- too little to close the deficit, and too late to save the Yankees from another winter of pondering how to avoid the same bitter conclusion next autumn.
“That’s a shoulda-woulda game that you can play,” Stanton said. “Each game counts. It doesn’t matter if it’s freakin’ March or April. All we needed was one more and we would have had this at home. They’ll come back to bite you.”