The celebration erupted again at Fenway Park last night, Red Sox players storming from the dugout and streaming from the bullpen, a scene as familiar now as the fall chill moving in. Champagne and beer awaited in their clubhouse as they leaped on one another. There will be October baseball in Boston, something once rare, now expected, and always cherished.
On the strength of a 5-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians before 37,882, the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot - what is looking like the American League wild card - and will make their fifth postseason appearance in six seasons, with an opportunity to defend their World Series championship. Game No. 157 may have also given Sox followers a measure of schadenfreude, as the Yankees’ streak of 13 consecutive seasons in the playoffs was officially snapped.
The Red Sox, who spent the postseason at home 75 times in 85 seasons between 1919 and 2004, have become playoff regulars. Tim Wakefield, the senior member of the team in terms of service, has helped steer the Sox in that new direction, but he had not won a clinching game - to make the playoffs or win a playoff series - until last night, the 399th start of his career.
A night after Josh Beckett couldn’t beat Zach Jackson, Wakefield beat the majors’ top winner, Cliff Lee. In doing so, Wakefield reached 10 wins for the 10th season, tying Roger Clemens for the team record.
Jonathan Papelbon, a recent face of Boston’s October success, earned the save, emphasis on “earned.” He entered with two outs in the eighth, Justin Masterson and Javier Lopez having loaded the bases. Jamey Carroll grounded Papelbon’s first pitch, an outside fastball, to Dustin Pedroia, who flipped to second.
The ninth was Papelbon in full - menacing glares toward the plate, stalking around the mound, fastballs down batters’ throats.
After two strikeouts, Victor Martinez popped up a pitch to the infield. Papelbon pointed to the sky and hopped to the right of the mound. Shortstop Alex Cora squeezed the ball. “Dirty Water” blared. The dugout emptied. The scrum inched toward shortstop, Papelbon whaling away on teammates. Kevin Youkilis broke free for a moment, then headed back for more.
Players formed two lines leading into the dugout, hugging one another on the way to the clubhouse. A television reporter asked Pedroia for his most memorable moment of the year. “Right now,” he said.
Lee brought into the game a 22-2 record and 2.41 ERA, numbers befitting a pitcher who had not lost since July 6. He could have written his Cy Young Award acceptance speech on the plane to Boston. The lefthander delivered for the first three innings, allowing one hit, only to surrender a barrage in the next two.
The Sox took control in the fifth, one inning after they grabbed the lead with a two-run fourth and then lost it. Jacoby Ellsbury doubled home Coco Crisp with one out, then scored when Pedroia hammered a ball high off the Monster for a double. David Ortiz struck out, followed by an intentional walk to Youkilis. Jason Bay shot a single through the middle, scoring Pedroia and giving the Red Sox a 5-4 lead.
Zeros piled up for the first 3 1/2 innings, followed by a sudden offensive burst: nine runs in an inning and a half. The Sox initiated the scoring in the fourth. Ortiz continued his tear, blasting a ball they could have shown an in-flight movie on. It drilled the Giant Glass sign high on the center-field wall, above the 420-foot mark, allowing him to stroll into second for a double.
He didn’t stay there long. Youkilis came to the plate and crushed a 1-and-1 pitch into the third row of seats atop the Green Monster. The homer was Youkilis’s 27th, but only his third since Aug. 20. It gave the Red Sox a two-run lead and gave Youkilis his 111th RBI.
The Indians struck back instantly. Wakefield hit Kelly Shoppach to start the fifth and allowed singles to Franklin Gutierrez and Grady Sizemore, the latter scoring Shoppach. Gutierrez then scored on a grounder to third.
Shin-Soo Choo looped a ball to right-center, and Crisp tracked it down. He slid, but the ball deflected off his glove. Choo had a double; the Indians had a third run. They added another on Jhonny Peralta’s double.
Aside from that inning, Wakefield fluttered knuckleballs brilliantly. The Indians tagged him for four hits in the fourth but only two in the other five innings he pitched. Wakefield struck out six and walked only one, controlling a knuckleball that, of late, has been as unpredictable as ever.
Wakefield vacillated between extremes his previous three starts. He recorded only five outs Sept. 6 in Texas, allowing seven runs. He followed that by hurling eight shutout innings against the Blue Jays. He unraveled again in his last start, going just 2 1/3 innings and allowing six runs.
Hideki Okajima recorded one of the biggest outs of the game, keeping the Red Sox ahead and bailing out Manny Delcarmen in the seventh. Delcarmen loaded the bases and got two outs before Francona yanked him so Okajima could face the switch-hitting Martinez.
Okajima went to a full count. Martinez fouled off two pitches. Okajima fired an 82-mile-per-hour splitter. Martinez hit it foul again, this time high in the air and toward first base. Youkilis squeezed it, and the Sox had escaped with the lead.