The last Red Sox player on the field at Fenway Park last night did not turn off the lights before heading home for 1998.
Instead, while the celebration was centered on the visitors’ side of the field at Fenway Park, where the Cleveland Indians were making plans for a return trip to the American League Championship Series after closing out the Red Sox, 2-1, Nomar Garciaparra popped out of the first base dugout.
The Sox shortstop waved his cap fiercely from Lansdowne Street to Van Ness to Yawkey Way, extended his arms toward the crowd of 33,537, and put his hands together, again and again.
Even in defeat, Garciaparra, whose fourth-inning home run off Bartolo Colon accounted for the team’s only run yesterday and whose 11 RBIs set a Division Series record, felt it appropriate that this season should end in applause. It was either that or face a bleakness he was not yet prepared to face: no game today. Or tomorrow.
Next game, 1999.
``I was just thanking the fans,’’ he said after Boston was closed out in the fourth game of the best-of-five series. ``Thank you, thank you for being there all year.’’
The Indians, who came within one out of winning the World Series last season, will now meet the Yankees for the right to a return engagement, but Garciaparra won’t be watching.
``There’s nothing to watch,’’ he said. ``We won’t be there.’’
There will be time later to reflect on how the Indians’ David Justice, who hit a game-winning two-run double in the eighth inning off closer Tom Gordon with the Red Sox ahead, 1-0, detected a flaw where most other teams had found near perfection. With one gorgeous swing straight out of the Ted Williams school of hitting, Justice rifled a one-hop laser to the center-field triangle, ending Gordon’s consecutive-save streak at 43 and dashing Red Sox designs on extending their October. That had seemed so possible with starter Pete Schourek -- the controversial choice as yesterday’s starter because manager Jimy Williams didn’t want ace Pedro Martinez working on three days’ rest -- pitching nobly for 5 1/3 scoreless innings and reliever Derek Lowe setting down all five batters he faced.
``When I walked into the box,’’ Justice recalled, ``I said, `This may be my last at-bat of the evening.’ ‘’
Justice didn’t say anything about how his last at-bat would also become the last stand for Williams, who has a World Series ring because of the home run Justice hit in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series but was deprived of the chance to win another this year because of Justice’s double last night.
``Good luck to you guys,’’ a red-eyed Williams said as he took a call from Indians general manager John Hart. ``John, I’ll tell you, I’ll be watching you. Thanks again for calling, Johnny.’’
There will be all winter to watch replays of Mike Stanley’s sixth-inning single and third base coach Wendell Kim waving John Valentin home, where he was thrown out by that man Justice instead of scoring the run that would have given the Sox a 2-0 lead.
``He hasn’t played much left field,’’ Valentin said of Justice, who played just 21 games in the outfield this season, and hadn’t thrown out a runner all season until last night. ``In that situation, you want to be aggressive. I’m just looking at my third base coach, and he’s waving me in. I can’t make the decision whether to stay.’’
There would be plenty of nights to lie in bed wondering just how close Mo Vaughn came to putting one in the net in what might have been his last Fenway Park at-bat in the bottom of the eighth.
``Oh, yeah, I thought I had it, but the damn wind was blowing the wrong way,’’ said Vaughn, who had to settle for a Wall-shot double and was replaced by a pinch runner, Donnie Sadler.
``If the wind was blowing straight out, it would have been 2-2, but the crosswind knocked it down.’’
Sadler was still 90 feet away from scoring the tying run when Troy O’Leary, whose 1-for-16 performance was the most conspicuous failure by a front-line Sox starter, lofted a little fly ball into short center field, where it was caught by Kenny Lofton, whose broken-bat single off Gordon had touched off the Indians’ winning rally in the top of the inning.
``You could say, `He should have done this, he should have done that,’ ‘’ Garciaparra said. ``I don’t do that. Everybody did his job. The results are the results, but we threw everything we had on the field, gave our hearts out there.’’
And came up short, like every Red Sox team for the last 80 years.
``I’m pretty surprised it ended this way,’’ Valentin said, his uniform jersey streaked with clay for the final time this season. ``I anticipated that we’d go far.’’
Instead, they’re going home.