The Red Sox clinched their first American League East title in 12 years in thrilling, long-distance fashion late Friday night. More than an hour after they had downed the Twins, 5-2, to reduce their magic number to one, the Yankees put it at zero by squandering a three-run lead in the ninth and losing to the Orioles in 10 innings on a bases-loaded, two-out bunt single by Melvin Mora.
After taking first place in the division on April 18, the Red Sox never let it go, winning their first division title since 1995.
The AL Division Series are now set, with the Angels to play at the Red Sox and the Yankees at Indians. Since the Yankees cannot play the East champion Red Sox in the first round, it came down to the Indians and Angels to see who would play the Wild Card Yankees. With the Indians up two games, and holding the tie-breaker on the Angels with two to play, the Indians clinched the berth vs. New York.
What remains to be determined is which AL team will finish with the best overall record and the right to select the series of its choice -- the eight-day series starting on Wednesday or the seven-day series starting on Thursday. That also is down to the Indians and Red Sox due to their tiebreaker wins over the Angels. Boston holds the tie-breaker vs. the Indians, so if those two finish tied, the Red Sox win the honor.
"It's game time, it's October," pronounced right-hander Curt Schilling. "This is when great players play great, and hopefully, we have a couple of those guys in this clubhouse."
"We have more things to do, but there's no getting around how excited we are," said manager Terry Francona, seated with a cigar in hand just a few feet outside his office. "This was a very big accomplishment for the organization, for the city, we need it to just be the beginning. But it's a big accomplishment."
It was interesting to see the way the accomplishment came to a finish.
First of all, the Red Sox needed to win, and Daisuke Matsuzaka helped them do that. In this one, he went back to being the guy who could set a tone and go deep into a game. Matsuzaka went eight innings and threw 119 pitches. He allowed six hits and two runs while striking out eight. With the win, he closed out his first Major League season with a record of 15-12 and an ERA of 4.40.
He had help offensively from the usual suspects. David Ortiz went 3-for-4 with a homer; Mike Lowell added two hits and two RBIs.
Then all the Red Sox needed was some cooperation from the Orioles, which didn't seem likely given the way that game was going.
With the remainder of Yankees-Orioles game playing on the Jumbotron for the pleasure of the several thousand fans who stayed at Fenway, the place erupted when Mora's bunt officially ended the division race.
As the Red Sox poured champagne in the clubhouse, the message on the scoreboard in center field said it all: "CHAMPIONS OF THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST."
Considering that the Yankees were safely in control and had Mariano Rivera on for last call, quite a few Boston players left Fenway with the division race still unsettled. Many others remained, watching the game from the comforts of the clubhouse.
"Guys were heading home, and we had a number of guys sitting around here watching the game," said reliever Mike Timlin. "We were just laughing and joking and having a great time. Sitting around with your buddies watching baseball, there's no other way to do it. The way it turned out was awesome."
As the Orioles mounted their comeback, most of the players who had left returned for what wound up being a joyous celebration that spilled on to the field.
"It was definitely wild," said first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "It was crazy. It's 9-6, and Mariano Rivera's pitching. They came back and did a great job, and it was unbelievable just to see them win. I went across the street just because family and friends were eating. I was basically a block away. I was watching the game. I knew if they won I'd be right back. I was in my car waiting, and I saw them tie it and I came right back. I didn't get too far."
Francona was relieved not to have to spend the rest of the weekend playing for the American League East title.
"It's great," he said. "David is banged up. We need to probably get our house in order, and we need to do that balance with the winning, and it's not been very easy. There's still things to play for."
At any rate, the Red Sox aren't stressing over what length of series they'll play. Instead, they were taking a moment to savor the accomplishment.
"We had a good start, and when you have a good start, you want to see it through," said general manager Theo Epstein. "Take it wire to wire. We were able to do that. It says a lot about the professionalism and consistency of this team that we really never went through a long cold stretch. Our cold stretches were periods of .500 baseball. That's the mark of a good team."
On what wound up as clinch night, the Red Sox came out swinging against Twins starter Kevin Slowey. Ortiz lofted a two-out double off the Green Monster in the first. Lowell, who never seems to pass up an RBI opportunity, smashed a line single to right that scored Ortiz. J.D. Drew then lined a double to the opposite field that brought Lowell home to make it 2-0.
Matsuzaka came out sharp, giving the offense time to extend the lead. In the third, Ortiz ripped a one-out single to right, moving Manny Ramirez to third with one out. Lowell again managed to get a run home, this time on a fielder's-choice grounder that increased the lead to 3-0.
Slowey settled down for a couple of innings, but the Red Sox again generated some momentum in the sixth. Lowell cranked a double off the Monster. With one out, Youkilis blooped an RBI single to short right field, and the Red Sox had a 4-0 lead.
After firing six scoreless innings, Matsuzaka ran into some trouble in the seventh. Justin Morneau led off with a homer to right. Garrett Jones worked a one-out walk and Matthew LeCroy lined a ground-rule double to right. Brian Buscher's fielder's-choice grounder drove home Jones to slice it to 4-2, but Matsuzaka got out of it with no further damage, as Nick Punto lined out to center. In the eighth, Matsuzaka again came through, getting Torri Hunter -- the potential tying run -- on a 5-4-3 double-play ball.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon worked the ninth for save No. 37.
Though Papelbon wasn't mobbed on the mound, with uncertainty still in the air, he was among those celebrating on the Fenway sod later on.
How good can these Red Sox be?
"We have a ton of potential, but potential can only take you so far," said Papelbon. "We need to go out and prove how good we are."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less