SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the NL wild card race as the regular season nears an end.
NEW YORK — Two things that aren’t yet true, but might be soon:
Mookie Betts is the Most Valuable Player in the American League.
The 2018 Boston Red Sox are the greatest team in franchise history.
The former was all but assured Thursday night in the Bronx, when Betts produced another offensive tour de force with a four-hit, five-RBI night, his 30th home run the dagger in the Red Sox’s 11-6 victory over the New York Yankees for Boston’s unprecedented third consecutive American League East title.
The latter? That’s a trickier designation, requiring a comparison of eras and, for modern Red Sox fans, the sporting equivalent of asking which child is the favorite.
This much we do know: The Red Sox are 104-49. Two more victories, and they will produce the most wins in club history, surpassing the 1912 club that went 105-47.
And of course, there’s 11 other victories these Red Sox must have: Three in the AL Division Series — possibly against these same Yankees — and then four more each in the ALCS and World Series.
“This group certainly ranks up there, given what they’ve achieved,” Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy, a club employee for 17 years, told USA TODAY Sports, “but if there’s one common feeling among this group, it’s that history judges baseball teams by the postseason. We’re going to celebrate, I think, appropriately tonight and deservedly so, but they know they have a long way to go.”
So when closer Craig Kimbrel struck out Giancarlo Stanton to end the game, there were hugs at the pitcher’s mound — but no dogpiles. Polite applause for their fans who crowded down by the dugout — but no tears.
And the perfunctory beer and champagne blitz certainly soaked their rivals’ visiting clubhouse — but the merriment was over after only a handful of old-school hip-hop tunes had a chance to provide the backing soundtrack.
Music off. Wrapping peeled off the lockers. On to Cleveland.
“We haven’t won what we want to win yet,” the ever-understated Betts said.
Given the chance, he refused to politic for the MVP award — one he narrowly missed out on in 2016, when this Red Sox run started. After Thursday’s effort, he might not be denied.
Boston missed its first two chances to clinch the title here, and before the series finale, rookie manager Alex Cora gently chided Betts for a lack of aggression in the second half.
So Betts promptly ripped the fifth pitch of the game from Masahiro Tanaka off the wall in left field and scored the game’s first run.
A two-run single in the second inning, a double and a run scored in the fifth, a towering three-run homer in the eighth — welcome back, Aroldis Chapman — and here’s where Betts stands: A league-leading .339 average, 30 home runs, 27 steals and a 1.057 OPS.
His numbers against the Yankees: Three four-hit games, a .417 average, three homers and 19 runs scored.
Clear the mantle.
“It’s pretty obvious,” said teammate Ian Kinsler. “The MVP should be a complete player. Offensive numbers are great, and that’s all people focus on, but Mookie does a lot of other things really, really well on the baseball field.”
This coronation wasn’t all glorious. Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez walked seven and allowed 11 of 21 batters to reach base. Reliever Heath Hembree inherited three of those walks and gave up a go-ahead grand slam to Stanton.
And while Steven Wright’s three one-hit innings restored order, as of now he’s the No. 2 bullpen option in front of closer Kimbrel.
No World Series contender wants its set-up man to be a knuckleballer.
So the Red Sox have some issues to iron out between now and Game 1 of the ALDS on Oct. 5 at Fenway Park. And the road to a championship will be perilous: These Yankees or the powerful Oakland Athletics in the ALDS, followed by either the defending champion Houston Astros or Cleveland Indians in the ALCS.
Survive that crucible, and beat the NL champs in the World Series, and it would be hard to deny these Red Sox’s place in history. That 1912 team? Well, they did win the World Series, and Smoky Joe Wood did produce a 34-5 record, and they did feature future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker.
Yet, those Red Sox won an eight-team American League, finishing 55 games ahead of the Yankees, who did not have the Miami Marlins to raid in the offseason. Not that Stanton could have played for those Yankees, as this was 35 years before the game was integrated.
The 2004, 2007 and 2013 champion Red Sox? Well, the ’04 Idiots who broke an 86-year curse didn’t even win their division, if you’ll recall. The 2007 bunch might have the best claim, with a +210 run differential and an 11-3 postseason record.
The 2018 Sox have the best run differential of them all at +216. Eleven more wins, and that number — and this glorious Thursday night — will have even more meaning.
“Obviously, it’s a great accomplishment,” said Cora. “But where we play, winning a division is not enough. They want a World Series ring and we’ve got a shot now.”
Follow Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.