BOSTON — Narratives, when they are weighted with history, are not easily rewritten.
So even though the Boston Red Sox have won three World Series titles to the Yankees’ one in the last 14 seasons and even though they sprinted past everyone else in baseball with a franchise-record 108 victories this year, an uneasy feeling had settled in here as the visitors from the Bronx arrived this week.
The Yankees, after all, were looking like the dream-wreckers of old, after their cartoon-size sluggers, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, clubbed home runs while a frothy crowd urged them on during a wild-card playoff romp over Oakland on Wednesday.
And with Red Sox ace Chris Sale nursing a sore shoulder the last two months, and his velocity dipping, and with the Boston bullpen in a perpetually shaky state, the threads for a Boston unraveling were in plain sight as the two teams began their American League division series on Friday night.
But the Red Sox beat back any immediate concerns, riding an early three-run homer from J.D. Martinez, plus a stout performance by Sale, and then surviving their usual bullpen jitters for a 5-4 victory in Game 1.
“I thought we did a really good job of pecking away, a good job of giving ourselves opportunities, and just ran out of time,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “We just couldn’t get that backbreaking hit.”
This is the first time these historic rivals have met in the playoffs since their back-to-back American League Championship Series classics in 2003 and 2004: Boone, then a Yankees player, hit a walk-off Game 7 homer in the first of those showdowns, and the Red Sox rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit the following year, on the way to their first World Series title in 86 years.
Friday’s loss in this best-of-five series should do little to rattle the Yankees, who will send Masahiro Tanaka to the mound for Game 2 on Saturday against the Red Sox left-hander David Price. The Yankees, remember, lost the first two games of their 2017 division series, in Cleveland, before rebounding to win the next three.
Of more immediate concern for New York is the condition of center fielder Aaron Hicks, who left in the fourth inning on Friday with right hamstring tightness. A similar injury sidelined him for three games last week.
When Hicks departed, the Yankees were already down by five runs. But they had their chances once Sale left in the sixth inning. Hurting their comeback efforts were: a strikeout by Gleyber Torres with the bases loaded to end the top of the sixth, a groundout by Didi Gregorius with two runners aboard to end the top of the seventh and a harmless fly ball by Andrew McCutchen — who represented the tying run — to end the top of the eighth. Stanton, their cleanup hitter, struck out four times, including once with the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh.
“I had pitches to hit, in the zone, that were fouled off and didn’t get to them,” Stanton said.
Stanton’s partner in the middle of the order, Judge, homered to lead off the ninth against Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, narrowing the deficit to 5-4, but Kimbrel fired a fastball past Brett Gardner for one strikeout, buckled Stanton’s knees with a curve for another and then blew a fastball past Luke Voit for the final out.
In all, the Yankees went 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners. As a result, a comeback that seemed within their grasp fell short.
The need for a big rally arose soon after the game started. When Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman acquired left-hander J.A. Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays in late July, it was simply to fortify a shaky rotation. Yet it was hard to ignore a sweetener in the deal — Happ had a career 2.98 earned run average at Fenway Park.
That track record didn’t amount to much in Game 1.
Happ struck out Mookie Betts to begin the bottom of the first, but the inning unraveled quickly. Andrew Benintendi lashed a single to left-center, and Steve Pearce was treated as if he were David Ortiz — which he may as well be against Happ, with six career home runs in 32 at-bats, including a grand slam here last week.
So, even with the imposing Martinez on deck, Happ walked Pearce on four pitches to put two runners aboard. Martinez dug in and ripped a line drive down the line that just cleared Fenway Park’s Green Monster to put Boston up by 3-0. It also allowed the Red Sox, who have been knocked out in the division round the last two seasons, an opportunity to breathe.
“Anytime you go into the playoffs, everyone’s adrenaline is high and tensions are going,” Martinez said later. “I think it definitely just helped relax everybody.”
When Betts doubled off the wall in center to begin the third, and Benintendi followed with a bunt single, that was all for Happ. Of his 263 career starts, including the playoffs, only three have been shorter.
“Execution wasn’t as sharp as it’s been,” Happ said. “That’s the reason I always stress trying to get strike one, and there were times I wasn’t very good at that tonight.’’
Chad Green replaced Happ, and Pearce hit his first pitch into left field to bring home Betts. Benintendi scored, too, on a fly ball by Xander Bogaerts.
The contrast between the two starting pitchers was striking.
Sale had struck a defiant tone on Thursday, saying it did not matter how hard he was throwing, that he would still figure out a way to pitch effectively.
“If I take the mound I expect to win,” Sale said. “I don’t care what I have on a given day, I should be able to find a way with whatever I have.”
He was true to his word. The Yankees worked counts, troubled him for five singles and two walks, but also struck out eight times in his five and one-third innings. He walked off the field after Stanton singled with one out in the sixth to put runners at first and second.
Yet few leads — even a 5-0 advantage — are comfortable with the Red Sox bullpen at work. And so the Yankees crept within range when Voit singled in a run and Gregorius brought in another with a groundout off reliever Ryan Brasier. The Yankees had a chance to do far more damage, but Brandon Workman — with the Fenway crowd on its feet — struck out Torres on a full-count breaking ball.
Torres slammed his bat down, knowing that he had swung at ball four.
The Yankees added a run in the seventh, but they regretted not making more of loading the bases with no outs. Matt Barnes struck out Stanton, nearly got Voit to ground into a double play and then retired Gregorius.
The 5-3 score became 5-4 in the ninth, and Red Sox fans were squirming. But ultimately they rejoiced — just as they have so often this season.