BOSTON -- It took until the first day of September, but the Red Sox at last lost a series to their rivals.
The Yankees were downright relentless with their offensive approach on Thursday night at Fenway, and they were rewarded by grinding their way to a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox in the rubber match of this three-game series.
"They played better than us," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "Long games -- we're all tired. Tonight, we just didn't swing the bats that well. We move on and try to win tomorrow."
With Boston clinging to a half-game lead in the American League East, it sure seems possible -- if not probable -- that a three-game set at Yankee Stadium from Sept. 23-25 could decide the division.
Both teams are highly likely to make the postseason, as the Yankees lead the Rays by 8 1/2 games in the AL Wild Card standings.
"I try to concern ourselves about us," said manager Terry Francona. "I don't even know where they go play [next]. They're a good team. Our record is almost identical. We'll see the next five or six weeks what happens. It will be fun."
Even on a night when the Yankees worked five Boston pitchers for 203 pitches over a game that lasted four hours and 21 minutes, the Sox gave themselves a big chance in the bottom of the ninth.
Jed Lowrie opened the frame against future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera with a walk. With two outs, Jacoby Ellsbury drew a free pass. Marco Scutaro, who has had some big hits against Rivera in his career, came through with an opposite-field single to right to load them up with two outs.
Up stepped Adrian Gonzalez, who has 103 RBIs, but Rivera finished the game with a 1-2 cutter that looked unhittable. Gonzalez, thinking it was low, passed. Home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez called strike three, and that was that.
"That pitch was down," said Gonzalez. "I should still be hitting. It's a 2-2 count."
Catcher Russell Martin, who delivered the game-winning hit, couldn't have asked from a better pitch from his closer.
"You couldn't place the ball better," said Martin. "It was down and away, hit the corner, and there's not really much you can do with that pitch. You can't drive that pitch. It's just one of those pitches where, as a hitter, you've got to tip your cap to that guy."
It was a situation the Red Sox will take their chances with again.
"Yeah, we had the right guy up," Pedroia said. "That's the guy we want up there. Mariano is tough. We'll take those at-bats with Adrian any time."
Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard, two of Boston's most dependable relievers this season, couldn't hold the 2-1 lead that Jon Lester departed with after five innings.
For the Sox, the game unraveled in the top of the seventh. With one out, Aceves issued a 14-pitch walk to Andruw Jones. The righty then hit Jesus Montero -- just barely. As Francona typically does when his team is in a bind, he went to ace setup man Bard.
For one of the few times this season, the righty did not come through. Martin hit Bard's 97-mph fastball for a two-run double to right-center, putting the Yankees back in the lead at 3-2. Entering the game, Bard had allowed only three of 29 inherited runners to score.
"The 1-2 pitch I thought was a pretty good pitch, maybe an inch off," said Bard. "I guess he got it right, but it was a good pitcher's pitch. On 3-2, threw him a really good slider that he was able stay back on and foul off. Then, obviously the next fastball just caught too much of the plate. So I thought I made two really good two-strike pitches, just didn't put him away.
Eric Chavez followed with a pinch-hit RBI single to right to make it a two-run lead.
The Red Sox never recovered.
Lester had one of the most trying innings of his career in the top of the first, throwing 44 pitches, but allowing just one run. In the inning, Lester gave up three hits and a walk while facing seven batters. Robinson Cano's RBI double to left accounted for the run.
"A lot of foul balls, a lot of long at-bats, and that's what you get with these guys," said Lester.
Despite throwing all those pitches early, Lester was able to grind out five innings and was in position to earn the win. He gave up seven hits and a run, walking three and striking out six. Lester threw 114 pitches, 73 for strikes.
"That was the theme tonight -- just hanging in there, minimizing damage. I ended up making pitches when I had to," Lester said. "Really, two hard-hit balls and 114 pitches later, I could only get through five."
A.J. Burnett held the Sox down early, but Pedroia came up with a big hit in the bottom of the fourth, belting a two-run shot to center to put Boston in front at 2-1.
Aside from that, Burnett came up big for the Yankees, holding the Sox to five hits over 5 1/3 innings.
In 22 days, the teams meet again. Chances are, they will still be neck and neck in the AL East.
"We're similar in a lot of ways," Bard said. "Two of the best offenses in the league. The rotations are looking kind of similar. We both have really good bullpens. Similar teams, both really good teams."