WASHINGTON — They are used to being the alphas, dominating the American League East and often the rest of Major League Baseball, too, late September and October the canvas to add more strokes to their longstanding rivalry.
On Sunday afternoon, however, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will take the field shortly after 3 p.m. ET not aiming to put the finishing touches on a masterpiece, but rather to ensure their survival.
Deadlocked at 91 wins and 70 losses, they face identical opportunities in Game 162 — win and face each other Tuesday night at Fenway Park in the AL wild-card game, a first for a rivalry that’s seen almost everything.
Yet after a grim (Yankees) and exhausting (Red Sox) Saturday afternoon when New York failed to clinch a playoff berth, the clubs still have nine more innings to cover, one more game to win, a pair of pursuers to fend off, demons to exorcise.
For the Yankees, it is their newfound nemesis: the Tampa Bay Rays, who embarrassed them yet again Saturday at Yankee Stadium with a 12-2 victory that was merely just for kicks — the Rays have already clinched everything they possibly can.
For the Red Sox, it is their many inadequacies: shaky relief pitching, feast-or-famine hitting and shoddy defense that again came to the fore in a taut and at times terrifying 5-3 victory over the 96-loss Washington Nationals.
A Sunday that should be so simple — win and you’re in — may more resemble an exercise fraught with peril for two clubs more accustomed to setting up their postseason pitching this time of year.
They are humbled, but also hungry.
“We know that tomorrow counts,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said after a 3-hour, 53-minute slog during which he yanked a pitcher throwing a perfect game and lived to see tomorrow.
The Red Sox’s victory pulled them even with New York and kept them a game ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays, who can stay alive with one more win over the 109-loss Baltimore Orioles. A loss by either Boston or New York and a Blue Jays win would pull either club into a one-game playoff with the Blue Jays, who would host the Yankees but travel to Fenway on Monday.
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Losses by Boston and New York could lead to a three-way tie and a two-day tiebreaking process with the Blue Jays — or a four-way deadlock with the Seattle Mariners, who need wins Saturday night and Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels to stay alive.
Yet the giddy specter of Byzantine tiebreakers stretching across North America, while piquing fans’ interest, also served to obscure the fact the Yankees and Red Sox are finishing the season like heavyweights clinging to the ropes in the final round.
And that both clubs bow down to the Rays, who have laid waste to the division and now are peppering the Yankees with body blows just days before they may face them in the AL Division Series for a second consecutive year.
Saturday, Brandon Lowe hammered three home runs at Yankee Stadium as Tampa Bay won 100 games for the first time in franchise history. The Rays are now 51-24 against the AL East, including a 25-7 mark since July 29, when they wrested control of the division from the Red Sox.
Boston occupied a wild-card position every day since, save for a two-day span when they were percentage points out of the second wild card. But a pair of losses at lowly Baltimore earlier this week jeopardized the season, capping a 1-5 stretch that included an embarrassing Yankees sweep at Fenway Park a week ago.
It hasn’t come any easier at Nationals Park, where the great Juan Soto is surrounded by spare parts in a decimated lineup.
For two days, the Red Sox have game-planned away from the NL MVP candidate, and spot starter Tanner Houck retired him twice while delivering five perfect innings in his longest outing since Sept. 4.
Since Houck threw 41 pitches Tuesday at Baltimore, Cora did not hesitate to yank him with the perfecto intact. Houck said he’d loved to have pitched deeper — “I had it today,” he said of his A-plus stuff — but understood.
“It’s time to keep going,” he said, “and not be selfish.”
Ryan Brasier understood, too.
For the first time in his life, he pitched for a fourth consecutive day, asked to protect a 1-0 lead in the seventh. A pair of two-out infield singles — the second originally scored an error after Brasier bobbled a toss covering first — and a walk put him in a bases-loaded situation.
Jordy Mercer waited, with Brasier tiring but also resolute to take the ball.
“Someone asked if I needed a day (off),” Brasier said. “I said, ‘I had five months of days.’ I’m more than ready to take the ball when ready.”
Brasier, a member of the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series champion bullpen, didn’t pitch this year until Sept. 3. He suffered a serious calf injury in spring training, and then was struck by a line drive during a June simulated game as he neared a return. That came after an offseason during which his father passed away.
He was briefly optioned to the minor leagues this month for roster flexibility, but also to give him a bit more of a kick in the butt.
Message received. Brasier dotted the strike zone with a four-seam fastball to strike out Mercer — who was ejected arguing the call — and the threat was eradicated.
For the second consecutive night, Brasier pounded himself in the chest after an inning-ending punchout, more a gesture of self-realization than your standard athletic exultation.
“It’s been a tough year, man. It just kinda came out,” he said.
Boston would survive one more scare, when it could no longer duck Soto, who came to the plate with the bases loaded in the eighth. Lefty Austin Davis was summoned and Soto drilled a pitch to the warning track in center. A sellout crowd of 41,465 roared, a guttural combo of anticipation and dread in the bipartisan crowd.
Soto missed a dagger grand slam by a foot or two, settling for a game-tying sacrifice fly. Presumably, hearts sank even further in Seattle and Toronto.
“It was scary,” said Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez. “And thank God it stayed in the ballpark.”
Vazquez soon would be the hero, kick-starting a four-run, two-out rally in the ninth with an RBI triple. Kiké Hernandez’s two-run homer loomed larger when Washington’s Andrew Stevenson hit one of his own in the bottom half.
But the Red Sox held on. They’ll hand the ball to Chris Sale, their erstwhile ace now nearing full bore after a return from Tommy John surgery. Up I-95, the Yankees will hope Jameson Taillon can tame a relaxed and unpressed yet still dominant Rays club.
That’s not Cora’s concern. Admittedly exhausted, he can cast his team’s flaws against the opportunity that still awaits.
One more game — all just to guarantee one more after that.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a great week,” Cora said. “But we are in this position right now. We’ve got the right guy. We’ve just got to show up and win, hop on that plane and go home to our families and be ready for whatever happens next week.”
Follow Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.