A season-long bout of musical chairs between American League East juggernauts concluded Sunday, and when the music stopped, the Blue Jays had no place to sit.
Toronto (91-71) was the odd team out in a historically-loaded AL East, which became the second division ever to include four 90-plus-win teams (and the first since MLB moved to its current three-division format in 1994). The season’s final day began with 16 permutations of tiebreakers and wild-card scenarios involving the Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners.
And with each team’s game starting within 15 minutes of the others, the potential for simultaneous mayhem was palpable.
“No matter what, I was scoreboard watching,” Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo told reporters Sunday via Zoom. “Yeah, I was checking in on Toronto, checking in on the Yankees, but we knew we had our job to do.”
Ultimately, the simplest scenario emerged: The Red Sox and Yankees won their respective games and moved to 92 wins apiece, setting up a do-or-die AL wild-card duel at Fenway Park on Tuesday night (8:08 p.m. ET on Sportsnet and SN Now).
“It’s been a crazy, wild, tough year,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Fitting that it would come down to the last day to get in. But I love our group, I love our guys, I love our compete. It hasn’t always been perfect, but we’re ready to take our shot, and I feel like we know we can beat anyone when we’re at our best.”
The drama we saw Sunday is sure to carry over to the post-season, especially in a wild-card format where teams have one chance to advance. Here’s a look at some key storylines for Tuesday:
Cole vs. Eovaldi on the hill
Cole hasn’t been effective lately (6.15 ERA in his past five starts), nor has he found much success against the Red Sox this season (2-2, 4.91 ERA). What Cole has on his side is high-leverage experience. This will be his fifth winner-take-all playoff game, and he has a 3.09 ERA in the previous four.
Eovaldi will be working in a sudden-death scenario for the first time, but he’s no stranger to important playoff moments. He accrued a 1.61 ERA in 22.1 innings during Boston’s 2018 World Series run, which included that epically bulldoggish relief performance against the Dodgers (six innings on one day of rest). That was also Eovaldi’s last playoff outing.
The Judge and Stanton Show
Remember when we said how strong the AL East was this year? Well, the Yankees spent their final nine games facing top divisional opponents (Blue Jays, Red Sox and the league-leading Rays), which made for quite a tough road when the games mattered most.
New York went a respectable 6-3 in that stretch, and a lot of credit belongs to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. In those nine games, the super-sized sluggers combined for seven home runs, 23 RBIs and a 1.106 OPS. The rest of the team had just six home runs, 18 RBIs and — are you sitting down? — a .596 OPS.
It’s fitting Judge knocked in Sunday’s winning run to send the Yankees to the post-season. Somehow, it was the first walk-off hit of his career — but he could certainly add to that total this October.
“That’s the guy you want up in that situation,” Yankees teammate Tyler Wade said of Judge. “He works his butt off every single day. … So, for him to be able to do that in that situation, it’s big time.”
As was expected, a sports hernia will keep Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu out for the Wild Card Game. He hasn’t been nearly as productive as last year when he led the AL with a 1.001 OPS, but it’s still a notable loss for New York (offensively and defensively).
On a brighter note, Gio Urshela is expected to play after taking a scary fall in the dugout Sunday. The infielder recorded a hit in 16 of his final 18 games with the Yankees this season.
For the Red Sox, J.D. Martinez twisted his ankle on a base while jogging out to right field Sunday and Boston did not list the four-time all-star on its roster.
Season series, and beyond
Boston won the head-to-head matchup, 10-9, which is why Tuesday’s game will be played at Fenway. But New York owned this series at the end, sweeping three-game sets at home and on the road in the final two months of the year.
Of course, none of those games matter as much as the one coming up.
In the history books, this will be the fifth winner-take-all game between the two storied franchises (the most recent was Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS). Love it or hate it, a Red Sox-Yankees showdown comes with its own cachet.
“It should be fun,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “I think baseball enjoys it.”