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Give the Red Sox Some Credit for AL Wild-Card Win

And, we look to tonight’s NL wild-card game.

The American League wild-card game started strong, with a first-inning home run and the confounding struggles of an ace. It ended with the Red Sox’ advancing to the AL Division Series against the Rays, and the Yankees’ going home.

A good portion of what you’ll read about this game will rip the Yankees for being behind the league they once led. You’ll hear sports talk radio in New York call for Aaron Boone’s job, with others chiming in that the problems only begin with the manager. You watch replays of a questionable decision to send Aaron Judge home, where he was nailed for the second out of the sixth inning—a play that sucked the life out of the Yankees’ only real rally of the night. All of these things are true.

But before we diagnose all of New York’s ailments postmortem, let’s spend a few paragraphs discussing the Red Sox, who were in control for pretty much the entirety of their 6–2 win last night.

Boston overcame its two greatest weaknesses—its lack of bullpen depth and dreadful infield defense—simply by hardly involving them at all. Starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi attacked the Yankees’ typically patient hitters in the strike zone early in the count, throwing 80% of his first pitches for strikes, and then put them away with a combination of four-seamers, splitters, sliders and curves. He didn’t walk anyone (nor did the rest of the Red Sox pitchers), and only two of the 20 batters he faced worked three-ball counts. He also mixed up his delivery, at times turning to either a quick pitch or a delayed motion to throw off New York’s timing.

At the first sign of trouble for Eovaldi, a solo home run by Anthony Rizzo and an infield single by Judge to begin the third time through the order, manager Alex Cora went to his bullpen with one out in the sixth. Ryan Brasier, who didn’t pitch this season until Sept. 3 because he was hit in the head with a line drive during a minor-league rehab start in June, came in and allowed Giancarlo Stanton’s second long single off the Green Monster—the play that ended with Judge’s getting thrown out at the plate. Joey Gallo then filed out and Boston was in the clear. Cora turned to Tanner Houck, a starting pitcher who last pitched Sunday, for the seventh inning. By the time the Red Sox had to use actual relievers again, it was the eighth inning and they had a five-run lead.

As for Boston’s infield defense, the Yankees hit only four ground balls. Two of them were outs; two were infield singles. The rest of New York’s outs were via strikeout or fly out—or at home. About that play at the plate, maybe third-base coach Phil Nevin shouldn’t have sent Judge, but it took a perfect throw to shortstop Xander Bogaerts from center fielder Kiké Hernández, who also superbly played the ricochet off the wall, and then a perfect relay from Bogaerts to get Judge. Otherwise, Judge would’ve scored and the Yankees would’ve cut the lead to one with a chance to at least tie things up with Stanton on second and one out.

These Red Sox weaknesses could still come back to haunt them the rest of the way. They also could be without slugger J.D. Martinez, who was left off their wild-card roster because of a recent ankle injury and whose status is unknown for their series vs. the Rays. But even without Martinez, Boston’s bats did more than enough damage against New York’s ace and deep bullpen.

There are plenty of reasons to rip the Yankees, though what the Red Sox did last night and throughout the season is worthy of praise.

1. THE OPENER

“It was the most embarrassing performance by a group of New Yorkers since Andrew Cuomo and his staff wrote a book about leadership.”

That’s how Stephanie Apstein sums up what she witnessed from the Yankees at Fenway Park. In her postgame column, she roasts the Yankees for their shortcomings on the field, in the dugout and, especially, with their decision-makers. This is an organization that is stuck in its ways while the rest of the top teams in the league have passed it by.

2. ICYMI

Missed some or all of last night’s game? Relive it all in our live blog.

Red Sox Chase Cole Early, Silence Yankees by Emma Baccellieri and Matt Martell

From Bogaerts’s first-inning home run to his relay to throw out Judge at the plate, revisit in real time Boston’s win.

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Need a quick primer on the Cardinals’ September surge before tonight’s wild-card game vs. the Dodgers? We’ve got you covered.

Cardinals Look Unstoppable Right Now. Here’s Why. by Emma Baccellieri

St. Louis has ridden Paul Goldschmidt’s great second half and some luck to the NL’s second wild card.

Will the Cardinals’ Hot Streak Matter in the Playoffs? by Tom Verducci

The narrative says St. Louis is peaking at the right time. The data tells us it doesn’t matter.

3. WORTH NOTING

Tom Verducci writes: Maybe someday we will hear that Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was compromised by that Sept. 7 hamstring injury or some other ailment. That was not the same pitcher in the AL wild-card game and not for the past month. The foundation to Cole’s pitching is a four-seam fastball with efficient, true backspin that rides at the top of the zone. He lost it.

Since the hamstring injury, Cole’s arm slot began to drop and his fastball began to run, not ride. The spin was slightly off its usual axis. What pitchers call “wobble” gave his fastball a slight tail—rather than the usual boring action—which made it harder to command. It ran off the plate or, worse, into barrels.

Three of Cole’s four lowest four-seam release points this season occurred in his final five regular-season starts. Until Sept. 7 batters hit .203 off his four-seamer—the sixth-best heater of any starting pitcher. After that, they smashed it for a .328 average—the seventh-worst in baseball. Something was amiss.

Stephanie Apstein writes: Kyle Schwarber’s home run off Gerrit Cole was the second time Schwarber has hit a dinger off Cole in the third inning of a wild-card game to give his team a 3–0 lead. (The first time was in 2015, when Schwarber was a Cub and Cole was a Pirate.)

4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Next up is tonight’s National League wild-card game between the Dodgers and Cardinals. Los Angeles won 106 games this season and still fell short in the NL West race. Instead, it was forced to settle for a win-or-go-home matchup with the hottest team in baseball. St. Louis won 16 fewer games than the Dodgers but caught fire at the right time with a franchise-record 17-game winning streak in September.

So naturally, this all sets the stage for the Cardinals to work their Devil Magic and eliminate the defending champions, right? Well, perhaps. But it would be foolish to write off the Dodgers with ace Max Scherzer on the bump in a must-win game. Scherzer, who is from St. Louis, is the favorite to win his fourth Cy Young award this season, mainly because of his dominance after he was dealt to Los Angeles with Trea Turner at the trade deadline. In 11 starts with the Dodgers, he’s 7–0 with a 1.98 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings.

Pitching for the Cardinals is 40-year-old Adam Wainwright, who was one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. Despite his age, he went 17–7 with a 3.05 ERA, logged 206 1/3 innings and led the majors with three complete games. His success this year is also a credit to the elite St. Louis defense, which ranked first in MLB with 86 defensive runs saved.

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

There's a strong case to be made that the Dodgers were MLB's best team in 2021: best run differential (+269), best pitching staff (136 ERA+) and a deep, loaded roster that presents lots of options. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are here mostly because of a surprise run in the second half. Is the playoff structure perfectly fair here? No. Does it set the stage for a fun, dramatic game? Yes. The opportunity for this sort of zaniness is a postseason feature, not a bug, and it’s worth enjoying for what it is.

That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions for our team, send a note to mlb@si.com.