NEW YORK — Alex Cora had just started his postgame press conference in the cramped visiting manager’s office at Yankee Stadium on Sunday after a raucous win when there were two loud knocks on the door.
Before long, closer Kenley Jansen poked his head in, music from the adjacent Boston Red Sox clubhouse blaring, and paused the media session.
“Hey guys, sorry, AC, AC, c’mon, we need your speech,” Jansen said. “Sorry guys, intermission.”
Cora darted out of the room and returned moments later, his gray T-shirt splattered with the collateral damage of a beer shower for bench coach Ramon Vazquez, who’d just earned his first MLB managerial win after Cora had been ejected earlier in the game. Jansen wanted some words from Cora to signify the big 6-5 victory over the New York Yankees.
And make no mistake, the Red Sox felt this was a BIG win.
Any observer might be confused by the Red Sox’s jubilation at beating a down-and-out, fifth-place Yankees squad. The Red Sox still remain on the outside looking in at the American League playoff picture. And yet, here they were, celebrating like it was October.
“We’re just trying to have fun,” Jansen said. “We’re trying to chase the wild card, trying to get to the postseason. And we just got to stay loose and keep having fun.”
The way the season has gone, with so many ups and downs, injuries, inconsistencies and overall angst, a sweep of the Yankees, even a Yankees team that’s the worst it’s been in decades, was a significant stepping stone for a Red Sox team still trying to prove its worth. This win clearly meant something more to them.
That beer-soaked T-shirt Cora wore after the game featured a cartoon of the Underdog TV character, a gag gift of sorts he’d found sitting in his locker earlier in the week, courtesy of catching coordinator Jason Varitek.
The first two wins in New York were almost too easy. The Red Sox beat the Yankees by a combined score of 16-3, but Sunday was decidedly different. Earlier in the year, they might have lost this game, lost the momentum of two big wins. The fight the Yankees lacked early in the weekend showed up Sunday and tested the Red Sox’s mettle.
“Down the stretch, if we want to get to where we want to be, they’re not all going to be easy and we’re not going to be able to jump out to six- or seven-run leads like we did the first few games,” said Justin Turner, whose two clutch hits late in the game sent the Red Sox to victory. “Being able to grind away and stay in the game, pitchers keeping us in the game along and then find a way to have a big swing.”
Cora, ejected in the sixth inning after arguing balls and strikes on a rough day from home plate umpire Junior Valentine, watched the drama unfold from the visiting team’s cafeteria inside the clubhouse.
Rafael Devers, who went 3-for-4 on the day and is in the midst of a 10-for-17 stretch, got the Red Sox on the board early with a solo homer in the first inning. The Yankees tied it up with a Kyle Higashioka homer off Nick Pivetta, who entered in bulk relief of opener Josh Winckowski, in the third. Devers led off the sixth with a double, Turner walked and Masataka Yoshida nearly hit into a double play, but the throw from shortstop Anthony Volpe sailed past first base. Devers kept his eye on the ball, rounded third and saw the ball getting away, picked up the pace and slid head-first home for the go-ahead run just ahead of the tag. Three batters later, with two on in a tight game, Trevor Story struck out looking at a pitch well below the zone. After several missed calls, for both sides, Cora had had enough.
“I hate getting thrown out. I hate it,” he said of his third ejection this year. “To watch the game from inside and delayed (on TV) and all that stuff. I don’t get paid for that.
“We’re grinding here and we know what’s going on,” said Cora, who’d also been frustrated with a strikeout of Adam Duvall in the fourth. “For us, every fucking pitch counts, and we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep playing and if I get fined, I get fined. But we didn’t agree with the fucking strike zone today.”
No sooner had the Red Sox taken the lead, the Yankees tied it up in the bottom of the sixth on another solo shot off Pivetta. The right-hander finished with five innings pitched, allowing two runs on three hits and a walk while striking out eight on 74 pitches in another strong performance.
Triston Casas, one of the hottest bats in the Red Sox lineup, has been out since Saturday with a tooth infection that was drained on Saturday night. Casas’ absence forced Turner, who’s been hobbled by a bruised heel, to play first base on consecutive days. Cora had been avoiding playing Turner in the field because of the heavily taped ankle but had no choice without Casas. The veteran slugger continued to prove one of the best free-agent signings of the year with two late, clutch hits.
The first of Turner’s tremendous at-bats came in the seventh. Reese McGuire led off with a walk and Pablo Reyes laid down a sacrifice bunt to move McGuire over. Wong pinch-ran and after Alex Verdugo popped out, the Yankees intentionally walked Devers to get to Turner. Turner entered the game hitting .360 with a 1.006 OPS and eight homers with runners in scoring position this season. On the first pitch he saw from Michael King, Turner slammed a three-run homer over the fence for a 5-2 lead.
No. 20 for Justin Turner breaks the tie. 💣 pic.twitter.com/TED86qwDQL
— MLB (@MLB) August 20, 2023
“I’ve seen that so many times for a decade long, I’ve been seeing Mr. Clutch doing his thing,” Jansen said. “It’s fun having him around. It’s fun to be his teammate again.”
But New York didn’t roll over, tying it up once again. John Schreiber allowed a leadoff single that kicked off his foot and then walked the next batter on two questionable calls from Valentine behind the plate, before Volpe slammed his own three-run homer to tie it 5-5.
In the eighth, Chris Martin allowed a leadoff single and got two outs before allowing another single to left. Rob Refsnyder had just entered the game in left after Jarren Duran exited with a left toe contusion, jamming it earlier in the game trying to reel in a homer. Refsnyder slipped while fielding the ball but recovered, and fired in to Story, whose relay to the plate was on target but in the dirt. Connor Wong held onto it as Isiah Kiner-Falefa slid home. Initially, he was called safe but the Red Sox challenged the call and, after a lengthy review, Kiner-Falefa was called out. The Yankees counter-challenged Wong on catcher’s interference but the call stood and the game remained tied 5-5.
“From the get-go, I thought he was out,” Cora said. “I was wondering why Junior was waiting. He waited, waited, waited to look at the baseball and then he calls him safe and I was like, ‘What is he doing?’ There’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t agree with Junior today besides the strike zone. Why wait? Either he’s safe from the get-go, or if you’re waiting to see if he still has a baseball, he’s out.”
In the ninth, Reyes once again in the midst of a rally, led off with a single up the middle on the first pitch of the inning. He stole second before Verdugo drew a walk. Devers hit into a fielder’s choice erasing Verdugo, but putting runners on the corners. For the second time, that gave Turner a chance and for the second time, he came through. He cranked an 0-1 sinker to right field that scored Reyes and gave the Red Sox a 6-5 lead.
— Red Sox (@RedSox) August 20, 2023
“I just try to keep it simple and not try to do too much and get something I can get in the air to the outfield and make sure to get one run in,” Turner said. “Sometimes good things happen so I feel good. I like being in those situations.”
Turner admitted the last two days in the field have taken a lot out of him. Casas is due for an appointment on his tooth on Monday and, if cleared, will be back in the lineup. Cora said Turner will have the day off.
But the drama of Sunday wasn’t over. Jansen allowed a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth to Greg Allen then hit DJ LeMahieu to put two on with no outs. But the closer came back to strike out Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres before getting a fly out to end it.
“There’s not many games left, “ Jansen said. “We’re going to face good teams now and, you know, we’ve got to show we’re capable to make a run and make the playoffs.”
The win on Sunday moved the Red Sox to 19-14 against the AL East and 8-1 against the Yankees this year.
“They’ve kicked our ass,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We’ve played a handful of competitive games that have come down to the end where they’ve taken us. We just haven’t been good enough.”
Exactly half of the Red Sox’s 38 remaining games will come against divisional opponents. But first, the Red Sox have a tough stretch with four games in Houston this week, followed by a big home series against the Dodgers and then another three games next week at home against the Astros.
The Red Sox have the toughest schedule for the remainder of the season of any American League team. Only the Rockies, Phillies and Nationals have a tougher schedule than the Red Sox over the final six weeks.
The Red Sox have been so inconsistent all year, a phrase that’s been written here on too many occasions to count. As they fly high to Houston Sunday night, they know another letdown is only around the corner if they regress to their season’s mean. One difference this week, is a full rotation just in time for this tough stretch. Tanner Houck will rejoin the Red Sox and come off the injured list on Tuesday for the first time since suffering his facial fracture on June 17. The Red Sox will start James Paxton, Houck, Chris Sale and Brayan Bello in succession in Houston and should have a good idea what they’re capable of now that they’re finally healthy.
They may look back at this weekend in New York as one of the biggest series of the season.
“We’re playing better right now,” Cora said. “We just got to be ready for Houston. It’s not about the Yankees or Jays or the Rays. It’s about wherever we have to play, we’ve got to keep playing good baseball.”
(Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)