BOSTON — It was a two-strike pitch, the third changeup in a row thrown by New York Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle. And after sitting on the bench for the previous three hours, Mitch Moreland wasn’t about to let it pass.
That was the preamble to the swing that might have won the AL East.
Let’s stop here and say that the Yankees have come too far and done too much in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season to be counted out after one tough-to-swallow series-opening defeat on a mid-August Friday night in Fenway Park.
Maybe it was that the Sox had rallied to beat the Yanks in 10 innings only five nights before in the Bronx. Or that Boston is making a habit of these late-game dramatics, winning for the 12th time when trailing after six innings. More likely, though, it was that Red Sox ace Chris Sale is scheduled to start Saturday night with the Yankees at risk of falling a season-high six games out of first place.
Regardless, after Moreland banged a pinch single up the middle to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs, and the Red Sox tacked on two runs in the eighth against embattled Aroldis Chapman, and Addison Reed and Craig Kimbrel combined to record the final eight outs (six by strikeout), well, you could almost hear the air come out the Yankees’ balloon.
“With them being the next-closest team, to get that win and kind of separate ourselves a little bit more and start the series off on the right note, yeah, it’s a big one,” Moreland said. “Any time you can gain ground on somebody that’s right there behind you, it’s always nice.”
But it’s more than one game that has the AL East title trending in Boston’s direction. Consider this:
• The Red Sox won for the 13th time in 15 games; the Yankees are merely 15-10 in their past 25.
• Once again, the Sox’s offense resembled an assembly line, with nine batters coming to the plate in the decisive four-run seventh inning; the Yankees left 14 runners on base, with Aaron Judge stranding seven.
• Five days after stomping off the mound at Yankee Stadium, Reed bailed out the Red Sox’s bullpen from a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning, then threw a scoreless eighth; Chapman looked utterly lost again, the Yankees’ closer giving up two runs in a non-save situation and bringing his total to seven runs allowed in his past four appearances.
Add it all up, and the Yankees might soon turn their attention to locking up a wild-card berth and not worrying about the Red Sox until the postseason.
“There’s been a number of wild-card teams that have either won it all or advanced very deep,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said before the game. “I think there’s a lot to be said for winning your division, though.
“But I can tell you right now: We still have, what, two months to go, eight weeks to go? Whatever it is. There’s not been any conversation on what the end result of 2017 will be.”
In other words, the Red Sox aren’t counting any chickens. Not with lefty David Price sidelined indefinitely because of an elbow injury and hardly assured of pitching again this season. And certainly not after Drew Pomeranz trudged from the mound with one out in the fourth inning Friday night, back spasms short-circuiting his start.
But when the Yankees are nine outs from a victory and unable to protect a 6-3 lead, when they let another game come off the schedule with only six head-to-head matchups remaining between the teams, when they’re staring down the barrel of facing the AL Cy Young favorite who has dominated them throughout his career, it makes it easier for the Red Sox to relax — or at least take a breath.
“We’re trying to control what we can, and right now, they’re the ones that are following us,” Moreland said. “So it’s nice to gain some ground there.”
By doing what they did Friday night, the Red Sox can accomplish something more this weekend.
They can step on the Yankees’ throats.