BOSTON — There was one old-school moment in the weekend’s hootenanny between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees here, one moment that reminded you that history hangs on these teams like bats from the roof of a cave. It requires a bit of a set-up. In Fenway Park’s centerfield, which apparently was designed by Pythagoras on a very bad day, there is a bit of an angle right at the end of the two bullpens. On this angle, there is a yellow vertical line, one of the few features of the ballpark that is neither named for an old Red Sock nor been sold for advertising space to a local medical technology firm. The line is just a line. It is not the Lu Clinton Line, or the Mendel’s Den Genetic Engineering Line. But it is an important line.
In the seventh inning of Saturday night’s game, which New York eventually would win, 4–3, Boston’s Rafael Devers, the incandescent rookie third-baseman who is rapidly becoming New England’s most beloved semi-millennial, knocked an Adam Warren pitch 420 feet to the exact part of the wall where the line is. The ball rebounded off the wall and into the Red Sox bullpen. Devers rounded the bases with what he believed to be a home run. Yankee manager Joe Girardi challenged the call, however, reasoning understandably that balls that hit walls generally are not home runs. Which is where the old ballyard’s eccentricities come into play. The Fenway ground rules clearly state that a ball hitting to the left of that vertical yellow line and rebounding into the bullpen shall be deemed a home run.
“It’s a place that you have to study a little more closely,” Girardi said later. “It’s like a great old house, with all those nooks and crannies.”
(Devers already had one memorable home run against New York this season. The last time the Red Sox were in Yankee Stadium, he turned a 103 mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman into an opposite-field homer that, according to Statcast, was the hardest hit ball since the tracking system was introduced in 2015.)
At the moment, and likely for the foreseeable future, Boston and New York are contending for the American League East crown. Just as they had done the previous weekend in the Bronx, the Red Sox won two out of three as the teams once again gave everybody look at what the rivalry is going to be like for the next few years. Both are constructed around a solid core of young players of which Devers is the avatar for Boston while the massive Aaron Judge fills the same role for the Yankees.
Elsewhere on their respective rosters, Judge takes the field with the likes of shortstop Didi Gregorius, outfielder Aaron Hicks and catcher Gary Sanchez, all of whom are under the age of 30, while Devers’s teammates include outfielder Andrew Benitendi who, at 22, is two years older than Devers. Neither shortstop Xander Bogaerts nor rightfielder Mookie Betts are 25 yet, but have been regulars in the starting lineup since the end of 2014. Both teams did a very good job tending their farm systems over the past decade or so. Of course, both teams have luxurious earnings that made that job a lot easier.
Nevertheless, the players those systems produced have been more than worth the money. Judge was a genuine sensation over the first half of the season but, at the moment, he’s flopping miserably. He’s striking out at a heroic clip, 37 straight games and counting, and he’s looking very bad doing it. He’s hitting under .200 since the All-Star Game, and Girardi is starting to hear calls from the back pages of tabloid newspapers, and from the stands, that he should move Judge and his 37 home runs down in the batting order until the rookie can get his swing sorted out.
“I think he’s still dangerous,” Girardi said. “He’s been getting on base and other guys have been knocking him in.” Which is nice and all that, but it’s Judge who’s supposed to be doing that for other people. A very loud New York sports argument is brewing. Stock canned goods and turn off your radios.
Meanwhile Devers showed up after the All-Star break and became an instant sensation. He’s an enormously gifted natural hitter; as soon as opposing pitchers started working him inside, he adjusted almost instantaneously. (The homer against Chapman came on an inside fastball.) He’s hit eight homers in his first 20 games, and his home run on Saturday night made him only the second Boston player under 21—and the first one since 1915—to go deep in three straight games against the Yankees.
The other one?
A young Boston pitcher named Babe Ruth.
Some things never change.
More to the point, the two teams have played 10 games since the break and half of them have been decided by a single run or in extra innings. Even when neither of those caveats apply the games are still thrilling. In Friday's series opener, the Yankees overcame a 3-0 deficit by scoring six runs int he sixth and seventh innings to take a 6-3 lead. The Red Sox, naturally, answered, scoring six runs in the seventh and eighth to win 9-6. On Saturday night, Boston ace Chris Sale was outpitched by C.C. Sabathia in New York's 4-3 victory. At 37, Sabathia might as well have been one of the stone heads on Easter Island in the context of how young both his teammates and his opponents were. (Significantly, the Yankees are 4–1 in games that Sale has started against them.) He pitched six strong innings and reliever David Robertson kept the Red Sox from scoring after they loaded the bases in the eighth.
On Sunday, it was close again through the first five innings. Boston’s Rick Porcello, beginning to round belatedly into the form that won him last year’s American League Cy Young Award, gave up three hits and three walks but only one earned run in six innings and left with a 2–1 lead.
“A mix of different pitches, nothing, in particular, was really on fire," said Porcello."The walks were a little concerning, but we were able to pitch out of it."
In the bottom of the sixth, Jackie Bradley, Jr., who’d made a catch on Saturday that’s going to join Devers’s homer off Chapman in the Red Sox postseason video yearbook, knocked in a run with a soft single to leftfield. Two innings later, Boston catcher Sandy Leon drove in Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland when he ripped a double into the rightfield corner. That made the 5–1 final, and the Red Sox left town for a series against the AL Central-leading Indians with a five-game lead over the Yankees in the division.
“To win a series—home, road, wherever it may be—those are critically important, particularly in our division," said Boston manager John Farrell. "We know we’re going into a four-game, which will be a tough four-game series. So, to add to a lead in this particular series in the standings was important in our minds.”
The Red Sox clubhouse was bustling as the team was preparing to leave for Cleveland. (The last time those two teams played, they put together a 12–10 German opera that’s probably the best game of the season so far.) Spanish-language television reporters surrounded Devers, who looks so very young. He’s still a little round at his edges, like the star running back of the high school team, but with a bright smile as though everything around him is new. It pretty much is, I guess.
The gift is in his hands and in his eyes and in his head, and it’s a gift that’s centuries older than he is. Right now, at 20, Devers is in the team’s record book in a category with Babe Ruth, who once was a roundish little rookie himself in roughly the same place in a different time.
“I am having so much fun,” Devers said. Asked if he knew what the Yankees and the Red Sox is all about, he smiled again. “No, I don’t know that,” he said. That’s all right, though. History is for beginners, too.