Chris Sale’s velocity is down and he has a 5.53 ERA since returning from the injured list on Aug. 11, a big reason the Red Sox’s playoff hopes have vanished. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The magic number for the Boston Red Sox is 19.

Let me explain. That’s the number of wins (or New York Yankees losses) the Sox to avoid finishing in last place this season. With their playoff hopes vanished in the mist of a brutal two-week stretch, the Red Sox are now simply trying to stay out of the AL East cellar, where they’ve finished two of the last three seasons.

It’s hard to imagine these once-proud rivals fighting to stay out of last place. Yet here we are, the greatest rivalry in sports reduced to a battle of also-rans. Barring a late-September miracle, the Red Sox and Yankees will finish last and second-to-last for just the third time in history.

It happened in 1925 when the American League featured eight teams. The Yankees won just 69 games that summer, but that was considerably better than the 47-105 Red Sox.

The turning point of that season came on June 2. Wally Pipp asked out of the lineup because of a headache. Lou Gehrig replaced him at first base that day, had three hits, and went on to set the record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

Led by Gehrig and a healthy Babe Ruth (he missed much of the ’25 season with a mysterious illness) the Yankees won 91 games the next year and raised the pennant before losing to the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series.


The Red Sox and Yankees wouldn’t finish in the bottom two spots of the league again until 1966 when New York finished in 10th place in the AL, one behind Boston. The Sox drew a mere 652,201 fans to Fenway Park that summer, the worst since World War II.

It was the eighth straight year the Red Sox finished below .500, and what few fans were standing by the team were restless. It set the stage for the 1967 Impossible Dream season, when the Sox won 92 games and took home the pennant before losing in their own seven-game World Series.

It’s hard to imagine what the Red Sox will look like next year. There are certainly signs that the near future looks bright, with plenty of young hitters showing they are ready to become regular players. Wilyer Abreu had five hits in Saturday’s wild 13-12 loss to the Orioles and is hitting .342. Ceddanne Rafaela, who began the season in Portland, was the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter in the final game of the weekend.

Yet the pitching staff is still a concern. James Paxton is on the injured list and it’s impossible to figure out what he might be capable of next year. Chris Sale’s velocity is down, and he has a 5.53 ERA since returning from injury. There are plenty of other question marks on the staff.

In New York, it’s been a stunning fall from grace for a Yankees team that has been to the playoffs each of the past six seasons and has the second-highest payroll in the major leagues. Saturday was Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium and the 1998 team was on hand to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its 114-win season.

Yet not even the appearance of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera could remove the stench of this disappointing season. A rain delay of more than 2 1/2 hours was followed by a 9-2 loss to the Brewers brought everyone back to reality quickly.


Things got worse on Sunday with word that Jasson Dominguez, the out-of-this-world talent nicknamed “The Martian,” had torn his UCL and is likely out until the middle of the 2024 season.

New York is trying to avoid finishing below .500 for the first time in more than 30 years. The Red Sox are trying to avoid finishing dead last for the third time in four years. Accomplishing either of these “feats” won’t make this a better season. Yet in a year lacking victories you take the wins where you can find them.

It’s been a while since the Red Sox have talked about magic numbers to win the division. Now they’re just trying to stay out of the cellar. And four games with their rivals, a series usually circled with anticipation at the start of the season, are now little more than days to mark off the calendar as the team gets closer to the important decisions it will have to make in the coming offseason.

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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