BOSTON — He stood in foul territory down the right field line on Tuesday, back at the scene of his famous home run, long ago on a golden October afternoon. Bucky Dent, 69 years old, silver hair beneath his New York Yankees cap, had flown in from Florida to see his old team face the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park with the season at stake.
Suddenly a ball came roaring his way.
“They’re trying to kill me over here!” Dent exclaimed, but it was friendly fire from batting practice, a hooking liner by a Yankee that rattled around his legs. It turned out to be one of the hardest balls the Yankees hit all night.
There were no new heroes on the Yankees’ side of baseball’s greatest rivalry. There have not been for a while. The Red Sox eliminated the Yankees, swiftly and emphatically, in a 6-2 victory in the American League wild-card game. The Yankees struck out 11 times without a walk, and the last six spots in their lineup combined to go 1 for 20 with an infield single.
“Sick to my stomach,” said Yankees starter Gerrit Cole, describing how he felt after lasting only two innings, allowing two homers, two walks and three runs. It was Cole’s shortest start since 2016, long before the Yankees signed him for nine years and $324 million.
“We knocked out their ace,” said Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, who blasted a two-run homer to center field in the first inning. “That’s the best pitcher they’ve got. That’s the guy they gave all that money to.”
Spending is rarely a problem for the Yankees, who usually plow more than $200 million into their annual payroll but cannot find their way back to the World Series. They have made it just once in the last 18 seasons — in 2009, when they won their last title. The Red Sox have captured four in that stretch.
Boston now faces the reigning AL champions, the Tampa Bay Rays, in a best-of-five division series. The Rays — thrifty and thriving, as usual — stormed to the AL East division crown with 100 victories, eight more than the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, whose contract is expiring, issued a challenge, of sorts, to the players after Tuesday’s loss. He did not frame it that way to reporters, but how else to interpret part of Boone’s message, that the league is now full of imposing rivals?
“The league’s closed the gap on us,” Boone said. “We have to get better. We have to get better in every aspect. It’s not just the Red Sox and the Astros now in our league. Look at our division. The Rays are a beast, Toronto, and there’s some teams in the Central that are getting better and better, teams in the West that are better and better. Teams that have closed the gap on us, and that needs to be front and center as guys prepare in the offseason.”
Unsaid, but unmistakable, is that the Yankees are becoming exactly what they fear: ordinary.
They still have superstars to drive their brand, especially Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. But they scored only 711 runs this season — the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, the Rays, the Astros and the World Series champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers, all outscored them by more than 100.
The Yankees have only one starter, Cole, who can reliably work deep in games. Cole stands a chance at winning the AL Cy Young Award, but he faded down the stretch and pitched so poorly Tuesday that he agreed with Boone’s decision to lift him with no outs in the third.
“We’ve got to win,” Cole said. “That’s the right move.”
The score was only 3-0, yet the game was all but out of reach. Nathan Eovaldi and four relievers handled the Yankees’ boom-or-bust offense with ease, allowing two solo homers and little else. Stanton rued his sixth-inning shot off the Green Monster, which would have been a game-tying homer in the Bronx.
“Each game counts,” Stanton said. “All we needed was one more and we would have this at home. So yeah, they will come back to bite you.”
The Yankees had overcome a listless first half to nudge ahead in the wild-card race with a late-September sweep at Fenway. But the Red Sox caught them in the final week, earning the right to host the game because they won the season series from the Yankees, 10-9.
And so it was that Stanton’s high, deep drive turned disastrous. Judge, who was running from first, got thrown out at the plate by Bogaerts. Joey Gallo popped out, and for the Yankees, the season dissolved in a flurry of walks by the bullpen and run-scoring hits by Alex Verdugo.
The Red Sox acquired Verdugo from Los Angeles when they traded their cornerstone outfielder, Mookie Betts, to the Dodgers in early 2020. The deal was widely reviled in Boston, and the Red Sox fell flat in that shortened season.
Verdugo is not Betts, but he’s not bad, and the Red Sox seem to have survived the short-term pain of Betts’ departure. The Yankees, meanwhile, are nearing a similar crossroads with Judge, who can be a free agent after the 2022 season and will cost a fortune to retain.
“I want to be a Yankee for life,” Judge said. “I want to wear the pinstripes the rest of my career and represent this great organization and bring a championship back to the city. But you never know what the future holds for you.”
The Yankees have built around Judge since his arrival from the minors in August 2016. They had just done a roster reset, trading veterans for a prospect haul that included Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield and others. But Frazier has been injured, Sheffield was traded for the departed James Paxton, and Torres has regressed sharply, at the plate and in the field.
Several other hitters have also faded, like Gary Sanchez, who has batted .201 across the last four seasons and has never forged a partnership with Cole. Injuries sidelined or impeded infielders D.J. LeMahieu and Luke Voit. And Gallo — who is under team control for next season after a trade from Texas in July — often seemed like an automatic out. He batted .160 as a Yankee, with 88 strikeouts in 188 at-bats
“This was, overall, a tough go for us to really be the offensive juggernaut we’ve come to expect,” Boone conceded. “I’m not sure why we didn’t realize our potential there.”
Now the Yankees have an extra month to think about it, as the first team to shuffle off the postseason stage. They will always have their history — 57 postseason appearances, 40 pennants, 27 titles, living legends like Bucky and Reggie and Goose, Derek and Bernie and Mo.
But lately every year ends the same way, short of the World Series, short of the exacting standard that makes each autumn seem less joyful.
“It’s black and white for me: you either win or you don’t win,” Judge said. “We didn’t win. It’s a failure.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.