Usually the moment when a team clinches a division title is a literal one, a victory over not just the opponent on the field but math. Take last year, when the Red Sox, behind a home run from Mookie Betts (sounds familiar) and six strong innings from Drew Pomeranz (does not sound familiar) defeated the Houston Astros, 6-3, on Sept. 30 to secure their second straight AL East crown.
No combination of Red Sox losses and wins by the second-place Yankees would allow for them to be surpassed. The division belonged to them. The bottles popped in appropriate acknowledgment of the feat.
Then there are the rare seasons, the special seasons, the ones that often end up documented on a DVD, when it’s over before the math can confirm. The Red Sox have won nine AL East titles since divisional play began in 1969. Never before this season have they made it so clear that they will finish at the top of their class, that they are in the midst of one of those special seasons.
It’s all over but the accounting. For all intents and purposes, the Red Sox clinched their third straight AL East title Sunday night.
Trailing, 4-1, in the ninth and facing hard-throwing Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, the Red Sox rallied for three runs — tying it on a dual hustle play by Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. — then won it in the 10th on Andrew Benintendi’s seeing-eye single. The victory gave them a four-game sweep of the second-place and wild-card-leading Yankees and a 9½-game lead in the division. The Red Sox are 79-34 with 49 games to go, having already surpassed their victory totals from the 2015 (78), 2014 (71), and 2012 (69) seasons.
There was a joyous celebration befitting a walkoff victory, but of course there was no champagne. That will come when the math makes it official. But make no mistake: It’s over now. This division, and perhaps so much more come October, belongs to the Red Sox.
I know, they’ve had big leads before and collapsed. My yelping radio tells me this every day, just as it did in 2013. But this isn’t 1978 — Alex Cora is pretty much the polar opposite of sensitive, stubborn Don Zimmer as a manager — and it sure as heck isn’t 2011, when the Red Sox took a half-game lead in the division and a nine-game advantage in the wild card into September, only to choke on a chicken bone and miss the playoffs altogether.
They could sign Adrian Gonzalez tomorrow, name him team captain and the Official Clubhouse Lawyer of the Boston Red Sox, and they’d still run away with this thing.
This team is loaded (the Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi pickups couldn’t have worked better so far), unified (their young core players perform with an elan under Cora that was lacking when rigid John Farrell was in charge), and has shown no signs of wavering (their longest losing streak is three games, which has happened once, in April).
The Red Sox have had a quiet confidence all season. It’s not so quiet now, and perhaps their appealing we’re-better-than-you brashness in this series leads to genuine contempt should the Red Sox and Yankees meet in the postseason for the first time since 2004. Let’s hope so. But that’s on the Yankees to make it happen; right now, I’m thinking a Red Sox-Athletics first-round series is more likely.
They’re not unbeatable, of course. It just seems that way. There have been a couple of times this season when you had to pause and think to remember when they last lost. It seems like they’ve been on a 110- to 112-win pace all season, which is especially remarkable given that a Red Sox team has not won 100 games in a season since 1946.
If all realistic dreams are fulfilled this season, Sunday night’s comeback was one of those outcomes that will be looked back upon as a landmark moment, savored along with Betts’s 13-pitch at-bat that culminated in a grand slam against the Jays a few weeks ago and Bogaerts’s walkoff homer right before the All-Star break.
Maybe these moments are foreshadowing a championship; it certainly feels like they carry that kind of meaning, though only October can tell. The Astros and Indians are formidable too, though Houston’s talent may not overcome its self-inflicted lousy karma.
For now, Sunday’s win and the sweep stand as the promise of something bigger. But it’s also the greatest confirmation yet of the pure satisfaction Red Sox fans — at least those who stopped renewing their memberships in the Fellowship of the Miserable years ago — get to feel in real time with this team.
If you stayed up to watch until the end, you have a smile on your sleepy face today. If you went to bed, you woke up, said, “Holy cow, they won?’’ then caught up on what you missed while lamenting that you checked out early.
The lesson, of course, is an obvious one. No matter the circumstances, there’s no sleeping on these Sox.