It was a play that sent a jolt through 38,154 fans and the surging team in the first-base dugout. Jacoby Ellsbury, the fleet center fielder, pulled off the first straight steal of home for the Boston Red Sox in 15 years, a play that served as a metaphor as much as a turning point.
The sprightly Red Sox tripped the creaky Yankees, 4-1, completing a three-game weekend sweep at Fenway Park to win their 10th game in a row.
While Boston fans shimmied onto Yawkey Way, the Yankees slunk toward Detroit. They were more than beaten. They were humiliated.
Mariano Rivera blew a save on Friday. A.J. Burnett lost a six-run lead on Saturday. And now Andy Pettitte, the pitcher who almost never allows the Yankees to be swept, had let Ellsbury slip past him on Sunday.
It said something that on the same night that Ellsbury, 25, stole home, his counterpart as the Yankees’ leadoff man did not start.
Johnny Damon was nursing nagging injuries to his 35-year-old body and did not appear until the last moments of the game, when he flied out as a pinch-hitter for the final out.
Yet there was still hope for the Yankees before the game because of Pettitte’s impeccable track record. Sunday night was the 24th time in his Yankees career he started the final game of a series with the Yankees trying to avert a sweep. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Pettitte was 17-1 in those starts, including 4-0 last season.
For that reason and more, Pettitte was precisely the pitcher the Yankees wanted on Sunday. He came into the game as the Yankees’ most consistent starter, an unlikely scenario considering his age (he turns 37 in June) and the team’s lukewarm offer to keep him last winter.
For four innings, Pettitte throttled the Red Sox. The game was tied, 1-1, but it was hardly Pettitte’s fault.
Angel Berroa, playing in his third career game at third, made two errors in the third inning to give Boston its run.
Still, Pettitte was giving the Yankees the kind of sturdy start they needed.
As ragged as their bullpen has looked, with a 6.68 earned run average through Saturday, the starters are partly to blame.
The Yankees had gotten only 92-and-a-third innings from their rotation, fewer than every other American League team except Baltimore and Oakland.
“This is something we went through for most of last year, and our guys were able to survive,” manager Joe Girardi said, referring to his relievers. “But that is not something you want to continually do, or they’ll be worn out by the break.”
Pettitte ended up lasting six innings, but the bullpen was warming in the wild fifth. It started ominously, with a four-pitch walk to Jason Varitek. With one out, Pettitte walked Ellsbury.
After a flyout, Pettitte faced the slumping David Ortiz, who has no homers this season but doubled for the second game in a row. It clanged off the left-field wall and scored Varitek to put Boston ahead, 2-1.
With a base open against the right-handed Kevin Youkilis, Pettitte walked him intentionally to face the left-handed J.D. Drew.
With Berroa well off the third-base line, Ellsbury took a big lead on a 1-1 count and broke for the plate.
Pettitte, working from the stretch, was belatedly aware of the charging runner, and fired a strike to the plate. But there was no stopping Ellsbury, who rumbled in headfirst, tripping as he crossed the plate but still sliding under Jorge Posada’s tag.