Red Sox rise from this year’s rumble united, not divided

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ESPN – BOSTON — If you really think about it — and given the choice, most Boston Red Sox players would rather not — the tone for last year’s joyless slog to the American League East title was set with a slide into second base in the 17th game of the season and the reaction it elicited two days later.

So when shortstop Brock Holt took a spike to the calf from sliding New York Yankees designated hitter Tyler Austin in the third inning Wednesday night and voiced his displeasure, the Red Sox had their first real chance to prove with their actions that things are different now.

And let there be no doubt — these aren’t your 2017 Red Sox.

“It shows that we’ve all got each other’s back,” Holt said. “That was a pretty good [fight], probably one of the better ones I’ve been a part of. I tried to stay out of it. [The Yankees] have got a lot of big guys over there. But yeah, it shows how close-knit we are in here.”

Added catcher Christian Vazquez: “I think everybody knows that we have everybody’s back in here. We’re a family here. We fight together, we win together, so we’re here together.”

The 98 mph fastball Joe Kelly planted in Austin’s ribs was proof of that.

Kelly maintained he was merely trying to command the inside corner because, well, that’s what almost every pitcher says after inciting a benches- and bullpens-emptying brawl. But if you listened closely to those postgame comments, you got a different message.

This wasn’t a half-hearted or misguided attempt at retaliation. Kelly, a veteran right-hander known for his eccentricities, joked that he has never been accused of having “Greg Maddux command.” But he threw the ball in the exact spot that a pitcher would if he’s trying to defend a teammate.

Just ask Pedro Martinez. After the game, the Hall of Famer tweeted, “Sliding with the cleats up is a no-no in baseball. That means fight fight fight!

To review last season’s incident, just in case you blocked it from memory: Second baseman Dustin Pedroia got spiked on the side of the knee by Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado in the eighth inning of a game on April 21. Later in the series, reliever Matt Barnes retaliated by uncorking a fastball behind Machado’s head. When Machado objected, a television camera caught Pedroia yelling to him, “It’s not me, it’s them,” the verbal equivalent of putting the old bus in reverse.

At best, it looked bad. At worst, it revealed a clubhouse that wasn’t together, with Pedroia playing the role of Fredo Corleone and taking sides against the family. And over the next five months, it became clear that the Pedroia-Machado affair was emblematic of a larger problem. It felt as though the Red Sox were merely clocking in and clocking out, never enjoying themselves nearly as much as a 93-win team should.

On Wednesday, Austin slammed his bat to the ground, took a step forward and spiked his helmet. Kelly made a slight wave, inviting Austin to charge like a bull in Pamplona. Any amateur lip-reader could tell what Kelly shouted as Austin came toward him.

“Let’s go!”

Punches were thrown. Kelly landed a few good ones when Austin was on the ground, and as the teams came together, Austin threw a haymaker that connected with Red Sox third-base coach Carlos Febles. Yankees slugger Aaron Judge played peacemaker, putting his 6-foot-7, 282-pound body in front of Kelly, who wound up with scratches on his face and a ripped jersey.

It was the latest in a long history of Red Sox-Yankees throwdowns, evoking memories of Lou Piniella’s home-plate collision with Carlton Fisk in 1976, Pedro Martinez tossing Don Zimmer to the Fenway grass in the 2003 AL Championship Series and Jason Varitek shoving his catcher’s mitt into Alex Rodriguez’s face in 2004. And the popular postgame narrative was that the best rivalry in baseball, largely dormant for the past few years, had returned to its hot-tempered form.

But considering everything that happened to the Red Sox last season, this meant so much more. We’re not here to condone violence, but in this case, it was a positive development for Sox fans who have been wondering whether the atmosphere would be any different around a team that returned almost its exact roster from a year ago.

“That’s last year. This is this game,” Kelly said in response to a question about the Pedroia-Machado situation. “It’s one of those things — cold night, ended up actually hitting the batter. We’re already a very tight group, playing good baseball and hope we continue to do that.”

Together. For a change.