Rafael Devers gets a ceremonial ride in the laundry cart in the Red Sox dugout Sunday after his tiebreaking home run in the ninth inning sparked Boston to a 7-5 win over the Washington Nationals and a berth in the American League wild card game. AP Photo/Nick Wass

They play on.

The improbable roller-coaster ride of the Boston Red Sox continues Tuesday night when they host the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card game at Fenway Park. The Sox survived a leaky bullpen, inconsistent defense, a COVID-19 outbreak, and a week of chaos to get to the postseason.

Is a return to the playoffs for the first time in three years enough to label this season a success? There’s been considerable debate over that. If you take the season in its totality, you’d have to say yes. The Red Sox were coming off one of the worst seasons in history, and were picked by many to finish fourth with a .500 record.

Clearly they exceeded those expectations. Yet they did it by jumping out to first place, leading the division by 4 1/2 games on the Fourth of July. Suddenly, the expectations were sky high. And the Sox didn’t live up to them. They stumbled through much of the second half, at one point falling out of the playoff picture completely.

They won 11 of their final 16 games to claim the top wild-card spot. And here we are getting ready for the latest chapter in the sport’s best rivalry, played out under the pressure of a single-elimination game.

“I know that nobody believed in us at the beginning of the season,” Rafael Devers said after the Sox clinched their spot in the postseason party. “I just stayed positive throughout the whole situation. Obviously this is just our first celebration.”

Forget the beginning of the season. Let’s just go back a month to the four-game series in Tampa Bay when the Red Sox were being rocked by a COVID-19 outbreak. At one point Manager Alex Cora had to call star shortstop Xander Bogaerts off the field after receiving a positive test result on him during the game. He was the seventh player added to the COVID-related injured list, with another seven to come in the ensuing days.

It was the lowest point of the season. The Red Sox were in the midst of losing three in a row and had a middle infield of Jonathan Aráuz and Jack Lopez. Yet that infield turned three double plays behind Chris Sale as the Sox won 2-1. They would win the next night and salvage a split against the first-place Rays.

It should come as no surprise that Cora pointed to those two wins as the turning point of the season. They won more than they lost the rest of the way, and survived a grueling weekend against the Washington Nationals to clinch home-field advantage in the one-game wild-card showdown.

Now they face the Yankees. The same team that almost ended their playoff hopes by sweeping a three-game series at Fenway just over a week ago.

“It’s going to be nuts,” said Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo.

Nuts, indeed. The Red Sox have a chance to eliminate their hated rivals. They can avenge the 1978 one-game tiebreaker they lost when Bucky Bleeping Dent hit a stunning three-run homer. And Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the AL Championship Series in 2003.

Boone is now managing the Yankees, who needed a walk-off infield single from Aaron Judge on Sunday to advance to this game without a tiebreaker. They’ve been on a collision course with Boston all season.

“We’ll be ready,” said Cora after Sunday’s clincher. “It should be fun.”

It has been fun. It just hasn’t been easy. We were reminded of that in the final days of the season, as the Sox survived two gut-wrenching games against a Nationals team going nowhere. They trailed 5-1 in the finale, battling back to tie the game before Devers hit his second home run of the game in the ninth to give Boston its first lead of the game.

It wasn’t the type of win that gives you a ton of confidence going into the playoffs, but it was a reminder that at its best the team finds a way to win. It did so 92 times this season.

If they can do it again Tuesday night this season will have been a success. No matter what happens after that. And no matter what your expectations were.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN and a Lewiston High School graduate.


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