The symbolism of it happening on September 5 is just too strong to ignore.
The 2018 Red Sox won so many games, and so many in unlikely fashion, that there’s probably only a handful that truly stand out going on a year later. Given scarcity, there might be as many memorable individual losses as wins: The debacle on Opening Day in St. Petersburg, the no-hitter in Oakland, and the 18 innings in the World Series just to start.
If I say “the Atlanta game,” however, I suspect you know to what I’m referring. Especially if I bring up Brandon Phillips.
The Red Sox didn’t need to win on Sept. 5, 2018. Not only were they were 96-44, 8.5 games clear in both the division and the American League, they’d already won the first two games at the NL East-leading Braves. Alex Cora started a spring training lineup and Hector Velazquez; Boston trailed 2-0 after one, got a run back in the second, then Drew Pomeranz came on and it was 7-1 in the fifth.
Atlanta, in a divisional dogfight, was 98 percent to win on a getaway Wednesday. Cora threw in William Cuevas because, well, MLB’s still shunning the formal mercy rule.
Then, you know. Six in the eighth to tie it, a Freddie Freeman solo shot off Brandon Workman to put Atlanta back ahead, and the 37-year-old Phillips. An afterthought expanded roster callup, beginning likely the last nine games of a 17-year MLB career, Phillips swung so hard at the first pitch he saw, he needed a second to catch his balance as it became a two-out, two-run homer to win it.
Because of course he did, and of course they did.
When the 2018 Red Sox finished off the Dodgers, I wrote that “now comes the hard part. Knowing we’re going to watch Red Sox baseball for the rest of our lives and it will never be able to top that.” A step down from nirvana was entirely expected by everyone. Teams just don’t do that every lifetime, never mind every year.
I don’t think even our bleakest citizen expected this. That the Red Sox would be desperate for a win on Sept. 5, 2019, barely .500 at Fenway Park and staring up at playoff-bound Minnesota. That they’d have a 17-man bullpen, that they’d give up two hits and lose, that what momentarily appeared to be a J.D. Martinez walk-off into the Monster Seats would quickly become Rafael Devers getting thrown out at the plate on an outstanding throw from Eddie Rosario. That the whole thing would spark, well …
Of course he did. And of course they did.
“I’m like, laughing at it,” said Cora. “He hits the ball, you think it’s out of the ballpark. The ball bounces off the wall, you think he’s going to score, and he’s out.”
This year has done that to a lot of us. Heck, losing a game doesn’t even tell the whole story of Sept. 5, 2019. David Price felt tightness in his left wrist, the one that kept him shelved for a month, and won’t pitch against the Yankees this weekend, if again in 2019. Michael Chavis was stretching and reinjured the oblique he previously injured while rehabbing his shoulder, and probably won’t play again until 2020.
Listing the wild card standings felt like it went from perfunctory to pathetic at some point in the last 24 hours; my dignity long since vaporized, it’s 6.5 games behind Oakland after their third straight win, which required a 7-run seventh to erase a 6-1 hole. New York is arriving too late to deliver the ceremonial finisher to this title defense, but if they win 3 of 4 against Friday starter Jhoulys Chacin and Boston’s almost literal bullpen cast of thousands, their fans will claim the pelt all the same.
We’ve been lucky enough to feel this feeling before. Not so much in 2005 and 2014; the former deserves all the credit in the world, winning 95 games after a party winter 86 years in the making, and the latter were coming off a written-in-the-stars title zero people expected the previous year. When the Red Sox won it all in 2007, though, the future seemed gloriously assured: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jon Lester were all pre-arbitration, making less than $1 million a year, with Clay Buchholz just the kid with three career starts and one career no-hitter.
That Red Sox core was good in 2008-09, but never that good again. It’s hard to win, Terry Francona used to always remind, and the “now what?” always comes faster than you think.
As Curt Schilling sacrificed his 2005 season, if not a piece of the rest of his career, to win in 2004, so too did the all-hands-on-deck approach to last October probably sacrifice a chunk of 2019. It won, thankfully. Cora won’t feel the need to try reinventing the wheel to prepare his pitchers after a taxing title run next spring, because he won’t have to face the question.
Not that there’ll be any shortage of questions between now and then. When Nathan Eovaldi turns 30 in mid-February, he’ll be the third Red Sox starter in that age bracket and probably the only one who finished the prior season healthy. Chris Sale will begin his $145-million contract coming off the worst season of his career, and a second straight he failed to finish at close to 100 percent. David Price will be 10th among active pitchers in regular-season innings thrown, and that’s only if Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Ervin Santana, and Adam Wainwright — all impending free agents — don’t hang it up and push him higher up the list.
And that’s just players we know will be in Fort Myers. To think about Atlanta, and to see Mookie Betts mash three home runs in two nights, is to wonder whether we’re seeing the final days of one of the most joy-sparking parts of recent Red Sox success. He is the game’s greatest prize, the homegrown superstar, and there’s no reason that kind of player should escape a big-payroll club like Boston except for all the reasons we’ve seen all the times it has happened before.
“There’s so few guys getting on the market that you put someone like Mookie out in his prime,” MLB Network’s Tom Verducci said on Wednesday, asked whether a free-agent deal for Betts could rival those given to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last winter, “all it takes is a couple of teams to bid it up.”
This winter, the Red Sox either give Betts enough money to shun the choice and riches of free agency, something he’s expressed understandable eagerness to sample, or run the risk they lose a generational talent after the 2020 season for next to nothing. It’s a choice that will, even more than how to handle Martinez if he chooses to opt out of his contract, define the next decade of Red Sox baseball.
It’s one that felt a million miles away last Sept. 5, when the worry was delivering a championship they had all but promised with their play.
It’s just 22 games away now, that much being the surest thing at a time when just being a pretty good team never felt so insufficient.