- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- The staged farewell was for Mariano Rivera, although the way the Red Sox played it, Rivera must have thought he’d walked into a Friars Club roast. The Sox forced him via video to relive his worst Fenway Park moment -- the Dave Roberts steal and blown save in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS -- before breaking out the gifts and salutations. With his typical grace, Rivera smiled through all of it.
But it was the unscripted goodbye Sunday night that should resonate most for Red Sox fans. With a 9-2 win, the Sox officially eliminated the Yankees from the AL East race. A mere formality at this point, to be sure, as the Yankees are in fourth place in the division, 12½ games behind the Sox and closer to last place (10½ games) than first.
Nonetheless, Sept. 15 is the earliest the Yankees have been officially eliminated since 1992, when Rivera was a 22-year-old starting pitcher for Class A Fort Lauderdale, where his manager was Brian Butterfield, Boston’s third-base coach, and a teammate was Carl Everett, the ex-Sox outfielder whose ejection by plate umpire Ron Kulpa was far more memorable than when Mike Napoli was tossed by Kulpa Sunday night.
Napoli’s two-run home run onto the center-field camera well in the first inning, when the Sox took a 3-1 lead and were never challenged, was his seventh home run against the Yankees this season, just one shy of the record for home runs against the Yankees by a Sox player (Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx having hit eight in 1936).
The Sox first baseman had two more chances when he is most dangerous -- with the bases loaded, when he came into the game batting .524 (11-for-21) with three grand slams and 31 RBIs -- but he went down swinging in the fifth and was called out on strikes by Kulpa in the sixth.
Napoli, not enchanted with the call, spiked his helmet, which was sufficient provocation for the plate umpire to give Napoli the rest of the night off. Napoli has played 859 big league games since making his debut in 2006. This was his first ejection, his behavior evidently having been found more acceptable back in his clean-shaven days.
The strikeout also was of some consequence, although it’s almost unseemly to mention it when a player is swinging the bat the way Napoli has of late: .438 (14-for-32), five home runs, four doubles, 13 RBIs in his last nine games. But when Kulpa rung him up in the sixth, Napoli entered the Sox record book as the player with the most K’s in a season, that whiff giving him 178, one more than Mark Bellhorn, the man of notable sideburns on the ’04 World Series winners. (Somewhere Bellhorn was channeling Mike Torrez post-Buckner and thinking, “I’m off the hook.’’)
The Sox will gladly take the whiffs as trade-off for the production: Napoli’s seven home runs and 20 RBIs in 63 plate appearances against the Yanks this season, for example, compared to the five home runs and 21 RBIs his predecessor at first base, Adrian Gonzalez, amassed in 133 plate appearances against New York over two seasons. And there is the track record in October to consider: In 17 postseason games with the Rangers beginning in 2011, Napoli hit .328 with three home runs and 15 RBIs.
And by the time Napoli registered K No. 178 (which he did not stick around to discuss), the Sox were safely ahead 7-1, Clay Buchholz holding the Yankees to just two hits over six innings in his second tuneup for October since returning from the disabled list after a 94-day absence.
Buchholz, who was charged with an unearned run in the first after his wild pickoff attempt allowed Curtis Granderson to flee from first to third and subsequently score on a ground ball by Alex Rodriguez, was not particularly sharp, especially with his hard stuff. He walked four, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch. But the Sox turned two double plays behind him (three in all) and he remained unbeaten with an 11-0 record and 1.51 ERA, the kind of numbers that tend to play well in October.
“You remember where you’ve been,’’ Buchholz said. “I’ve been probably just about to the pinnacle, the best feeling you can get from this game, and I’ve been pretty low in it too. My mindset is to stay on an even keel. Stuff happens, you’ve got five days, and go about your business. I try not to get too high, too low. Just do your job.’’
The Sox took 13 of 19 games from the Yankees this season, their most wins against their archrivals since they won 14 in 1973, the year the DH was introduced. They beat the Yankees by four or more runs seven times, while scoring eight or more runs eight times.
“Our confidence continues to grow,’’ Sox manager John Farrell said after the Sox won for the fifth time in six games and 10th time in the last 12 to move 33 games over .500 (92-59) for the first time this season. “That’s not to take anything for granted or guys thinking that someone is not going to either pitch a good game against us or put together a good game against us. It’s just a matter that this group believes in itself and continues to show it between the lines.
“The beauty of this team is that it’s a collective group. It’s not about individual accolades or awards or acknowledgments, it’s about what we hope to continue to work toward and achieve.”
And besides everything else Sunday night -- Buchholz’s pitching, Napoli’s homer and four doubles, two by Daniel Nava, who went 4-for-4 -- there also was a double steal as catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was credited with a steal of home when the Yankees threw down to second in the fourth inning.
“Speed kills,’’ Buchholz said. “That’s what they were saying in the dugout.’’
The last time Saltalamacchia stole home? “Probably T-ball,’’ he said. “It’s definitely something I never thought would happen.’’
Saltalamacchia then ticked off the names of the players he knows have stolen home. “There’s [Jacoby] Ellsbury, Jackie Robinson and me,’’ he said.
How much difference does a year make? The regular season ended last year in Yankee Stadium with the Sox swept three straight by the Yankees by a cumulative score of 28-7, the final indignity a 14-2 defeat.
This season? With the Rays losing again Sunday, the magic number to win the division is down to four. The Sox, who have 11 games left, could clinch as early as Wednesday.
“It’s hard to sweep any team,’’ Buchholz said, “but finishing it off against the Yankees, it’s not an easy feat. I think everybody did their job.”
The broken-down Yankees, meanwhile, remain three games behind in the wild-card race and head to Toronto. The last Yankee to walk off the field Sunday night was Rivera, trailed by a TV camera, waving to the clusters of fans that waited to bid one last farewell. Before he left, he wrote a message on the bullpen wall, the only time all weekend he used his magnificent right arm. Rivera did not pitch once here in three games, and chances grow slimmer that he will ever pitch again in October.
2dScott Barboza, Special to ESPN.com