It took nearly four hours to complete, but the Red Sox managed to hold off the Nationals on Saturday afternoon to ensure that their season will extend beyond Sunday one way or the other.
Powered by a four-run outburst in the ninth inning, Boston outlasted Washington by a final score of 5-3 at Nationals Park, marking their second straight win that tightens their grip on one of the two American League Wild Card spots.
The Sox did not announce a starter for Saturday’s contest until a few hours before first pitch, but who they ultimately rolled with — Tanner Houck — turned in quite the outing to put the finishing touches on his rookie season.
Houck, making his first start since September 17, twirled five perfect innings in which he kept the Nationals off the scoreboard while striking out eight and walking none in the process of retiring each of the first 15 batters he faced in order.
The right-hander got through those five flawless frames on just 53 pitches (39 strikes), but given the fact he had just thrown 41 pitches this past Tuesday, the 25-year-old’s day came to an end as soon as he recorded the final out of the fifth.
In the process of witnessing Houck put together a bid at a perfect game, the Red Sox got very little production out of their lineup while matched up against Nationals starter Josiah Gray.
Rafael Devers put Boston on the board by crushing his 36th home run of the season off Gray with two outs in the top of the fourth, but that was all they could push across while Houck was still on the mound.
In relief of Houck, Garrett Richards got the first call from Red Sox manager Alex Cora out of the Boston bullpen, and he saw the combined perfect game bid come to a close when he issued a two-out single to the pinch-hitting Gerardo Parra in an otherwise clean sixth inning.
Ryan Brasier, taking over for Richards in the seventh, got himself in and out of trouble, as he loaded the bases with two outs on a pair of singles and a walk before emphatically punching out Jordy Mercer on five pitches to extinguish the threat.
Brasier, who completed his fourth straight scoreless appearance in as many days, celebrated getting out of the jam by pounding his chest, though the Sox lineup found themselves in a similar situation just a half-inning later.
After Enrique Hernandez, Kyle Schwarber, and Xander Bogaerts had each drawn a walk with two outs in the eighth, Devers had an opportunity to put this one way, but instead struck out against Nationals reliever Tanner Rainey.
With the score remaining at 1-0 in favor of Boston, Adam Ottavino appeared well on his way to recording the first two outs of the bottom of the eighth rather quickly. The veteran righty punched out Carter Kieboom on three straight strikes and proceeded to get Ryan Zimmerman to lift a 288-foot fly ball in the direction of center fielder Hunter Renfroe.
Renfroe, however, lost the ball in the sky, which allowed Zimmernan to reach base safely on a double that allowed the Nats to fill the bases when Ottavino yielded back-to-back walks to Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar.
At that moment, the dangerous, left-handed hitting Juan Soto was looming in the on-deck circle for Washington, which prompted Cora to turn to the left-handed throwing Austin Davis out of the bullpen.
Davis got Soto to hit a 303-foot sacrifice fly to deep center field that brought in Zimmerman from third to tie things up at 1-1, but followed that up by getting Josh Bell to line out to shortstop to retire the side there.
Potentially down to their final three outs in the ninth, J.D. Martinez led the inning off by drawing a 10-pitch walk that put the go-ahead run on base.
Jose Iglesias took over for Martinez as the runner at first, and he came in to score all the way from first when Christian Vazquez unloaded on a first-pitch fastball from Rainey and laced a run-scoring single to deep right field.
Travis Shaw followed by plating Vazquez on an RBI single of his own, and the Red Sox had themselves a 3-1 lead just like that. Hernandez provided what would turn out to be some much-needed insurance when he greeted new Nationals reliever Mason Thompson by clubbing a 401-foot tow-run shot to left-center field.
Hernandez’s 20th home run of the year gave Boston a commanding 5-1 lead going into the bottom half of the ninth. And although Davis gave two of those runs back on a two-run homer off the bat of Andrew Stevenson, Hansel Robles took over from there.
Robles worked his way around a two-out walk in relief of Davis and ultimately slammed the door on the Nationals to secure the 5-3 victory for the Sox as well as notch his 14th save of the season.
With the win, not only do the Red Sox improve to 91-70 on the season, they also move into a tie with the Yankees, who lost on Saturday, for the top American League Wild Card spot.
Additionally, Boston remains one game ahead of the Blue Jays, who also won on Saturday, while remaining one game up on the Mariners, who defeated the Angels on Saturday.
That being said, the Sox have ensured that they will be playing beyond Sunday’s series finale regardless of who wins and loses elsewhere. Whether their first action after Sunday comes in the form of a tiebreaker on Monday or the American League Wild Card game on Tuesday has yet to be determined.
Next up: Sale vs. Adon in regular season finale
While their plans could change, the Red Sox — at the moment — are slated to give the ball to ace left-hander Chris Sale in Sunday’s finale against the Nationals.
The Nationals in turn, will have right-handed pitching prospect Joan Adon make his major-league debut and close out their season.
First pitch Sunday is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. eastern time on NESN.
(Picture of Bobby Dalbec and Enrique Hernandez: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)