Should the Red Sox and Yankees meet again in the postseason, as they last did in 2004, Boston now will enter with the most reassuring of facts. Once again, the Red Sox have punctured a hole in the great Mariano Rivera, as sure a sign as any that the 2011 Red Sox possess the spunk to reinforce their skill.
The American League East is still up for grabs following the Red Sox' 3-2 win over the Yankees at Fenway Park last night, but that would have been true no matter what happened over the weekend on the top floor of baseball's toughest division. With last night's win, the Red Sox may have secured something far more valuable. The Sox now have the knowledge they can beat arguably the greatest closer in major league history, a skill that has somehow been passed down in recent Red Sox history like some kind of family heirloom.
"It's unusual," Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters after last night's game. "We're so used to seeing him do it, time after time after time."
Actually, it isn't that unusual at all.
In fact, relatively speaking and from the perspective of the Yankees, it has happened with alarming regularity.
The truth? Since Rivera became the Yankees closer in 1997, he is now 58 of 74 in all regular- and postseason save opportunities against the Red Sox, a save percentage of just .784. Against everyone else, the number is .904. The Red Sox have beaten Rivera 10 times in Boston and six times in New York, though, based on save percentage, Rivera's frustrations against them have been quite consistent: .778 at Fenway, .793 in the Bronx, .750 in the playoffs and .788 in the regular season.
From Bill Mueller (1.227 career OPS against Rivera) to Marco Scutaro (.896), they've had his number for a good chunk of the last eight years.
With regard to this team, this year, do not underestimate the importance of last night. David Ortiz and Jason Varitek obviously were members of the Red Sox team that thwarted Rivera in 2004, but the list of holdovers ends there. Just because Mueller succeeded against Rivera, that doesn't mean Scutaro would have. Manager Terry Francona is fond of pointing out each spring that every Red Sox team develops its own identity, and that was true from 2003 to 2004, let alone 2004 to 2011.
Nonetheless, this Red Sox club now has eight walkoff victories this season, three last week. Reddick (who had last night's game-winner) and Jacoby Ellsbury (back-to-back winners against Cleveland) are only the latest names to join the list. Carl Crawford (three), Adrian Gonzalez (one) and J.D. Drew (one) also have walkoff hits this season - the Sox are 8-1 in such affairs - and not a single one of those players was with the Sox in 2006, let alone 2004.
That kind of stuff is hard to teach. Teams either possess guts, poise and confidence ... or they don't. The 2002 Red Sox, for instance, were a sterling 40-17 to start the season, a .702 winning percentage that translates into a 114-win pace over the course of a 162-game schedule. Those Sox had two 20-game winners (Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe), a 40-save closer (Ugueth Urbina), and an offense built around Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez that finished second in the major leagues in runs scored.
Know what happened? The Sox went 53-52 over the final 105 games and missed the playoffs by six games. Midseason bullpen struggles demoralized them. Of course, the 2003 Sox had the same issue - a bad bullpen - but they won anyway and made the playoffs, ultimately failing in the playoffs (against the Yankees) only when a manager so traumatized by season-long bullpen struggles (Grady Little) locked up at the worst possible time.
The point is that even supremely talented teams fail. And sometimes, the ones with guts overachieve.
As for these Red Sox, we all knew their potential entering the season. Before the Sox played even an exhibition game, Josh Beckett was talking about 100 wins. The large majority of people picked the Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies to meet in the World Series. The Sox are now on pace for precisely 100 wins and possess a 10-2 record against the second-best team in the league, and no one needs to be reminded that the Sox were 17-20 entering a three-game weekend series at Yankee Stadium in mid-May.
Know what has happened since then? The Sox have found their identity. They became a team with talent - and guts. They became true, championship-caliber material, something that was rather unclear during the first quarter of the season.
Today, for all the Sox have already accomplished this year, the Sox have something else to add to their resume.
They have become yet another Boston representative to strike down Rivera, the consummate symbol of Yankee dominance with whom the buck has always stopped.
Come October, that is just something you cannot put a value on.