NEW YORK — Jeff Nelson did not exactly celebrate when the Red Sox lost to the New York Yankees on Wednesday night, but he did notice the result with a small measure of satisfaction.
“That was their 49th loss,” Nelson said. “It means they can’t be the best team ever.”
As a member of the 1998 Yankees, Nelson is protective of that team’s legacy. It went 114-48 and won the World Series, making it, in the eyes of Nelson and many others, the most successful baseball team of all time.
Nelson, as much as anyone in baseball, understands the glory and the potential pain associated with winning more than 100 games. He was a relief pitcher on two of the most successful teams ever: the ’98 Yankees and the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games to tie the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the season record (although the Cubs did it in 154 games).
But that Mariners team did not reach the World Series — thanks to the Yankees, who beat Seattle in the American League Championship Series. That failure still haunts Nelson, just like it could haunt the Red Sox if they don’t win a championship after accumulating their 104th win Thursday at Yankee Stadium.
“That was really painful,” said Nelson, who is now an analyst for the Miami Marlins television broadcasts. “The whole city expected that to be the year.”
Having played for the Yankees, Nelson understood their uncanny ability to close out a postseason series. Once the Yankees took a 3-1 series lead in New York, he said, he knew the ALCS was over for Seattle.
“After we lost Game 4, I went out in the city by myself to about 15 different bars and didn’t get back until six in the morning,” Nelson recalled in a telephone interview from Miami. “When I went to the stadium for Game 5, I just put my feet up in the bullpen and enjoyed the atmosphere, and watched us lose. I knew it was over.”
Could the Red Sox be headed for the same agonizing fate? This Boston team may not match the win total of the ’98 Yankees, but it is still one of the best teams in franchise history. After beating the Yankees, 11-6, on Thursday and clinching the AL East title, Boston needed only one more win to match the team record of 105, set by the 1912 Red Sox, who won the World Series.
This Boston team has already passed the 1915 Red Sox, who won 101 games and the World Series, and Thursday’s victory matched the 1946 Red Sox, a team led by Ted Williams that lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series.
Whatever their final win total, the 2018 Red Sox will face the pressure of living up to their own remarkable regular season. But as they head toward October, they do not have the look of a cruising juggernaut. In fact, Wednesday’s 10-1 loss to the Yankees felt a bit like a warning.
The game provided a virtual catalog of the things that worry Red Sox fans about a possible divisional-round series against the Yankees: David Price did not pitch well again, the bullpen was ineffective again, the lineup was anemic and Chris Sale did not pitch again.
Sale, of course, was not scheduled to throw, but his absence from the mound has been a problem for Boston over last two months. Since July 27 he has pitched only three times — for a total of nine innings — because of elbow inflammation. In his last two outings he was limited to 26 and 42 pitches, so there is some uncertainty about what he can do when the intensity is turned up in two weeks.
Price is particularly enigmatic: Even when he is generally pitching well, it often does not translate against the Yankees. Heading into Wednesday’s game, Price was 5-0 since the All-Star Break with a 1.56 ERA, but then he surrendered four earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, and his ERA against the Yankees this year actually decreased, to 10.34.
Price gave up three pop-fly home runs to right field (one by Miguel Andujar and two by Luke Voit). Afterward, he seemed annoyed by the short, 314-foot fence in right field at Yankee Stadium, but was reluctant to use it as an excuse.
“Everybody’s playing in the same park,” Price said. “It’s not like the fences move back when we hit or move forward when they hit.”
In two starts at Yankee Stadium this year, Price has surrendered eight home runs. But that probably will not be an issue in the playoffs because if the Red Sox play the Yankees in a five-game series, Price would pitch in Boston, not the Bronx.
But the Red Sox relievers will have to pitch in both stadiums, and they have been a source of trouble all year. For the most part, the offense has papered over the bullpen blemishes, but since Sept. 1, the Red Sox’s run-scoring has tapered off, aside from Thursday’s outburst.
Considered an offensive powerhouse through most of the season, Boston hitters hit only 11 home runs in the first 19 days of September, the lowest figure in baseball. Their 64 runs scored during that period placed them 24th out of 30 teams this month.
But the Red Sox are not entertaining the idea that October pressure is already getting to them. Alex Cora, Boston’s first-year manager, is quick to dismiss talk about the team’s historic pace. His focus, which he hopes filters down to the players, is solely on winning the championship, whether it comes after 110 regular-season wins or 85.
“There’s bigger things,” Cora said during the Red Sox celebration Thursday. “We set that up in spring training. Obviously, it’s a great accomplishment, but where we play, winning the division is not enough. They want a World Series.”
Nelson said the Red Sox might have done themselves a favor by losing Wednesday. At least they won’t feel any pressure over trying to match the standard set by the 1998 Yankees.
He added that the key element separating the ’98 Yankees from the ’01 Mariners was superior playoff experience. The Yankees knew how to handle the postseason and the Mariners did not. Boston has postseason experience, but not as a record-setting, 100-plus-win team.
“Boston is so good,” Nelson said. “But sometimes it can be hard to live up to how good you really are.”