The Red Sox finally did it.
After an entire season spent chasing their American League Eastern counterparts without winning a multi-game series, the Sox have set everything up for their best weekend of the year.
Michael Wacha returned from the injured list and held the league’s best offense scoreless for seven innings Sunday night and the Red Sox led his performance to a convincing 3-0 win over the mighty Yankees.
“I don’t remember coming back feeling like that right off the bat,” Wacha said. “It was a good feeling tonight, for sure.”
It capped off a huge series win at Fenway Park over the weekend, when the Sox won two of three and limited the Yankees to just five runs.
Throughout the year, the Sox argued that their poor performance against divisional competition did not matter. But that’s precisely why they’re at the bottom of the rankings right now; they entered the series 0-11-1 in a multi-game series against foes the AL East.
Still, the Sox are 4 1/2 games behind a wildcard spot with three teams ahead of them.
“Most definitely we have a chance,” Wacha said. “Everyone at this club thinks we’re still in this thing and we really are. A lot can happen in those last 50 games and that’s the mentality we have to go out and keep winning. playoffs and keep that momentum going and who knows, give this thing a little run and get us in.
Finally, this team put together a full streak of quality pitching performances.
Throwing with nothing on his fastball Friday night, Nathan Eovaldi limited the Yankees to just two runs in a 3-2 victory. Kutter Crawford kept the momentum going Saturday with six two-run innings. And while John Schreiber allowed a run on a bunt single to lose Saturday’s game 3-2, the bullpen allowed just one run in eight innings of work this weekend.
Wacha’s performance stood out from the rest.
Before shoulder inflammation sent him on the injured list for the entire month of July and the first two weeks of August, Wacha had quietly been the ace of the staff.
After six weeks of rest and rehabilitation, Wacha returned to the team just in time for a game on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and a chance to build momentum heading into Monday’s matchday.
With a mid-90s fastball and a change that looks like one of the best pitches in baseball this year, Wacha was just as effective on Sunday as he was before the injury.
It wasn’t until there were two outs in the fifth inning that Miguel Andujar singled out to give the Yankees their first baserunner of the night.
Andrew Benintendi added a one-out single in the sixth, then Wacha knocked out Aaron Judge and Josh Donaldson on a pair of 95mph radiators.
After a scoreless seventh, Wacha left the mound for a standing ovation and was quickly given hugs in the dugout, where Cora told him his night was over.
That was all the Red Sox needed as Wacha went seven scoreless innings, allowing only a pair of singles and a walk, while striking out nine.
It was the most strikeouts by a Sox pitcher since June 19, when Nick Pivetta was in a groove and struck out 10 against the Cardinals.
Other than an 11-start streak from Pivetta in which he went 8-1 with a 1.95 ERA on a streak from May 7 to June 29, Wacha offered the only glimpse of ace-like behavior.
Eovaldi was consistent for most of the season until he came off the injured list with 3 mph off his fastball. Pivetta has since returned to earth. Chris Sale is out for the season. And while Crawford has looked good over the past month, there has been a distinct lack of presence at the top of this rotation.
Wacha could change that.
He kept the Yankees guessing as he threw a heavy dose of fastballs and substitutions, throwing just eight breaking pitches on the night.
Why bother? His fastball was only averaging 94 mph, but he was ramming it and chopping it, then confusing hitters with a wipeout change no one was able to touch this year.
Entering Sunday night, Wacha had thrown 347 substitutions this year and allowed just one home run. Batters are hitting .157 off the field.
On Sunday, he threw 21 changes and 15 were swung – including 10 puffs.
“The change was exceptional, unbalanced them from the start,” Cora said. “He had a good break point. It was impressive.
All Wacha needed on Sunday was an RBI groundout by Xander Bogaerts in the first inning. Rafael Devers added a two-run homer in the sixth. Tommy Pham was 3 for 4.
A former Cardinals first-round pick who was a highly touted prospect more than a decade ago, Wacha is now 31 and kicking off a one-year, $7 million deal that looks like a bargain for Chaim Bloom. Red Sox.
Wacha improved to 7-1 with a 2.44 ERA this year. With him on the mound, the Sox are 10-4. Without him, they are 47-55.
They’re not back in playoff contention just yet, but with an ace at the top of the rotation, they at least have a chance.
“You see his numbers, he was really good for us early on,” Cora said. “He was one of the reasons we played good baseball. Bringing him back means a lot.