BOSTON — The cleats on Steve Pearce’s gray New Balance model 4040v4 baseball shoe are about 1.27 centimeters long. It is roughly that distance by which the Yankees’ season ended last year in the Bronx.
That fraction of an inch is what ultimately separated the Red Sox from the Yankees in their divisional playoff series, which Boston won in four games. If Pearce had not anchored the toe of his right foot to first base, as he did, if the plastic cleats on the bottom of his shoe were a tiny bit shorter, or if the throw to him was slightly more off target, the Yankees might have won Game 4 and carried a plane-load of momentum into a do-or-die Game 5 at Fenway Park, potentially changing the course of the postseason.
“It’s a Game 5 and anything can happen at that point,” Andrew Benintendi, the Red Sox left fielder, said in Boston last week. “Luckily, we’ll never find out.”
On Tuesday night, in the Bronx, Pearce and the rest of the Red Sox will meet up with the Yankees for the first time since that crucial play, although the encounter will come with both teams stumbling through the early part of the 2019 season.
The Red Sox, baseball’s defending champions, are just 6-11 after Monday’s Patriots’ Day loss to Baltimore at Fenway. The Yankees, meanwhile, are just 6-9 and have lost three straight series at home.
But back on Oct. 9, 2018, the Yankees and Red Sox were two of the best teams in baseball and were sweating out a tense, and chaotic, bottom of the ninth in Game 4 of an American League division series, with Boston securing the final out only when part of Pearce’s right shoe stuck — just barely — to the base while he snared a throw from third baseman Eduardo Nunez in the webbing of his glove.
For an instant, time froze. Pearce was splayed on the dirt with the ball still in his glove, his body’s momentum having tugged his foot off the base. The Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, who had raced desperately to first after hitting a weak grounder to Nunez, planted his left foot on the bag just as Pearce fell. On the other side of the diamond, the Yankees’ Adeiny Hechavarria, the tying run, had turned third base and was headed for home.
Had this been the previous century, or the early part of this one, when fortune almost always favored the Yankees over the Red Sox, perhaps Pearce’s foot would have disconnected prematurely from first base, or the throw would have skidded away. Perhaps there would have been a different outcome in Game 4 and maybe in the series.
“Oh yeah,” said Aaron Boone, the Yankees manager, who once authored a classic Yankees-Red Sox ending of his own with a walkoff home run against Boston in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. “It’s the perfect game-of-inches play in such a big spot.’’
Boston’s Craig Kimbrel, left, Christian Vazquez and Eduardo Nunez react after the final out in Game 4.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
But this historic rivalry has been turned on its head over the last 15 years and when first-base umpire Fieldin Culbreth pumped his fist to signal that Torres was out, the Red Sox were on their way to the A.L.C.S. and, from there, to their fourth World Series title in this century. And, in a sense, all because of a razor-thin play by a 5-foot-11 player who is undersized for the position he plays.
“I’m not the tallest first baseman in the world,’’ Pearce acknowledged last week as he recalled the ending to Game 4. “I have to use every bit of Steve Pearce I can find to get to the baseball. I was anchored to the bag and nothing — nothing — was going to pull me off until I caught the ball.”
Pearce, who turned 36 over the weekend and has played for seven teams over the course of a 13-year major league career, said he does not do yoga. But he does stretch a lot and demonstrated enough agility that night to catch the ball and clamp his foot to the base, if only for an instant.
When Culbrin made the out call, Red Sox players charged out of the dugout to celebrate. But Boone, with nothing more to lose, requested a replay review, hoping that Pearce’s foot had indeed come off the bag before he caught the ball.
The replay, however, confirmed that Pearce, through sheer willpower, never lost contact with the base.
“His foot could have been off the base by this much,’’ Brock Holt, one of his Red Sox teammates, recalled last week as he put his right index finger next to his thumb, allowing only a speck of light to seep through. “But it wasn’t.”
That Pearce was even in the game for the play was a bit improbable. Acquired from Toronto last June 28 to add right-handed power to Boston’s bench and give Manager Alex Cora a platoon option at first base, Pearce was not considered much of a fielder.
“When we traded for him, everybody just thought he was bad,” Cora said of Pearce’s reputation in the field. “But he made some good stretches. A few inches here or there could have changed the course of the series.’’
Pearce said he played shortstop in high school, but an injury forced him to move to first base in college (he played at Indian River Community College and the University of South Carolina) and he eventually settled into that position as a professional. But his value centered more on his offensive punch, which he would put on display in last year’s World Series, when he hit three home runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers and ended up being voted the most valuable player.
In Game 4 in the Bronx, Cora might have even taken him out of the game in the bottom of the ninth for defensive purposes if his other first baseman, Mitch Moreland, had not been sidelined with an injured hamstring. Instead, Pearce was manning first as the Red Sox closer, Craig Kimbrel, went to the mound, needing just three outs to squash the Yankees for good.
But Kimbrel, with a seemingly safe 4-1 lead, was erratic. He walked two batters, hit another and surrendered a single. The Yankees trailed, 4-2, with one out and the bases loaded when Gary Sanchez hit a towering drive to left field, which Benintendi caught on the warning track.
The Yankees now trailed, 4-3, with two outs and runners on first and second. Yankee Stadium was alive and loud and the Red Sox were still in danger as Torres came to the plate. He slapped a breaking pitch from Kimbrel slowly toward third, and Nunez charged, scooped the ball and fired it sidearm toward Pearce.
“It was a great play by Nunez,” Pearce said. “I read the ball out of his hand and I just moved to it’’
With his right foot tethered tenuously to the bag, Pearce moved his left foot toward third. And his right hand went to the ground so he could brace himself as he stretched for Nunez’s rushed throw.
The combination of the ball in his glove and his foot on the base lasted for a fraction of a second. A small fraction, at that. But it was long enough.
“I wasn’t going to leave that base, no chance,” Pearce reiterated. “It wasn’t going to happen. Just anchor the bag and be an athlete.”
Torres, meanwhile, said Saturday that he knew he was out, but that he was not overly impressed with Pearce’s play.
“It was all right,” he said. “I think every first baseman in the big leagues can do that play. No big deal for me. He did a really good job. But it’s a regular play.”
Even if it was a regular play, if Pearce had not made it the game would have continued, and maybe the series, too, forcing the ever confident Red Sox to make one more stand.
“Then,” Holt said with a smile, “we would have just won Game 5.”