It has been apparent for a few weeks now that the Red Sox would win the American League East. The consistent, determined play that has defined this team since Opening Day only intensified when the calendar turned to September.
So on task were the Sox that they barely acknowledged clinching a playoff spot on Thursday. The celebration would hold until the division was officially theirs.
The wait was brief. The Red Sox beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 6-3, on Friday night and the joy was finally unrestrained, both on the Fenway Park lawn and in the stands as gloves flew in the air and heartfelt hugs were exchanged.
Jon Lester allowed one run over seven strong innings for his 100th career victory. Koji Uehara got the final five outs for his 20th save and then added to his career high-five record.
Dustin Pedroia had three hits, scored a run, and drove in another to lead a team that was rebuilt around him. Mike Carp drove in three runs as the Sox won their first division title since 2007.
The Sox open the playoffs on Oct. 4. They have seven more games to gain the top seed in the American League.
The 94-61 Red Sox have won the AL East seven times since baseball started divisional play in 1969. But this marks the first time in franchise history the team went from last place to first.
The Sox were 69-93 last season and finished 26 games behind the Yankees. The team was so dispiritingly bad that the Sox traded disgruntled stars Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers to be free of their high salaries.
Within hours of the last pitch, manager Bobby Valentine was fired after only one year on the job. John Farrell was then hired as manager and the roster was remade. The Sox expressed a hope they would be competitive. Instead they have been one of the best teams in baseball.
There was some irony to Esmil Rogers starting for the Blue Jays on a night the Red Sox could clinch the division.
Toronto traded Mike Aviles to Cleveland to obtain Rogers. Aviles was the player the Blue Jays obtained from the Red Sox as compensation for Farrell breaking his contract to become manager of the Red Sox.
The pitcher the Blue Jays essentially received for Farrell lasted only 2⅓ innings, giving up two runs on three hits and five walks.
Pedroia started the bottom of the first inning with a double off the wall in left field to extend his hitting streak to 10 games. Pedroia then tagged up and went to third when Daniel Nava flied to center field.
With David Ortiz at the plate, Pedroia scored on a wild pitch. Rogers walked Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Carp lined to shortstop for the second out before Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled to center.
Third base coach Brian Butterfield sent Ortiz to the plate and he was so out that he didn’t bother sliding.
Poor control cost Rogers again in the third inning. Nava doubled to left field with one out. Toronto then intentionally walked Ortiz with first base open.
But Rogers walked Napoli and Carp to force in a run. After 60 pitches (a scant 29 for strikes) he was lifted from the game. Facing Chad Jenkins, Saltalamacchia grounded into a double play to end the inning.
The Red Sox opened the game up in the seventh inning. Singles by Jackie Bradley Jr., Pedroia, Nava, and Ortiz off Neil Wagner extended the lead to 3-1.
Facing Jeremy Jeffress, Napoli grounded into a double play as Pedroia was out at the plate. But Carp’s two-run single to left made it 5-1 and the clubhouse attendants started preparing for a celebration.
Lester left two runners stranded in the second inning and one in the third. The real escape act came in the fourth inning.
Kevin Pillar drew a walk to start the inning before Moises Sierra hit a slow roller to third base. Will Middlebrooks charged the ball but it went off his glove for an error.
Mark DeRosa poked a single into left field to load the bases with no outs.
Anthony Gose hit a bouncing ball down the line that Middlebrooks grabbed out of the air. He came down on third base for the first out then threw to the plate. The Sox got Pillar in a rundown for the second out.
Lester then struck out J.P. Arencibia swinging at a changeup to end the inning.
The Blue Jays forced the issue in the fifth inning. Rajai Davis singled with two outs and stole second and third. That gave him 44 steals on the season, nine against the Red Sox in 10 attempts.
Brett Lawrie fell behind Lester, 1 and 2. He fouled off two pitches, took a changeup that missed low, then lined a fastball just over the head of Pedroia at second base to drive in Davis.
Lawrie tried to steal second but was thrown out by Saltalamacchia.
Lester retired the final six hitters he faced, four by strikeout. The big lefty threw 123 pitches, his second most of the season.
Lester has a 2.29 earned run average in 12 starts since the All-Star break. The Red Sox have not named him their Game 1 starter for the Division Series but that seems like only a formality.