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That's the ticket

Playoff-bound Sox pour it on, soak it all in

Some of them hardly knew each other that sleepy February morning when they gathered at a dusty park at the end of a dead-end road in Fort Myers, Fla., to prepare for a new season of promise and uncertainty. Now they will never forget each other.

In the best of all twists yet in a crazy season of wild highs and unfathomable lows, the Red Sox last night pocketed the first big prize in their bid to erase the franchise's 85-year championship famine by throttling the Orioles, 14-3, before 34,526 at Fenway Park to clinch a wild-card berth in the American League Division Series.

Oh, happy day.

"Everything was sweet," manager Grady Little said. "I wouldn't have it go any other way. Now we need about 11 more to go just like that."

The Sox, who badly wanted to clinch the berth before their hometown fans in the regular-season finale in the Fens, waved to the standing throngs from the dugout in the final inning, then stormed the field in a joyous scrum after Ramiro Mendoza (remember him?) caught Brian Roberts looking at a third strike to nail down the victory.

As "Dirty Water" blared louder than ever, principal owner John W. Henry poured bubbly for some fans, then joined them and team chairman Tom Werner in a triumphant toast.

How sweet was it? Even the silent superstar, Manny Ramirez, held an impromptu press conference at home plate. And the Karaoke Guy, Kevin Millar, did a few hip-swinging bars of "Born in the USA" after he thanked the fans from a microphone on the mound.

"It's time to cowboy up!" he bellowed. "We love you!"

The Sox open a best-of-five playoff series Wednesday in Oakland after capturing their first postseason invitation in four years. They will return for Game 3 a week from tomorrow.

"The fans have been unbelievable since Day 1 of spring training," Henry said amid a frenzy of champagne and beer showers in the clubhouse. "It was so great we could do it here. It was so necessary that we could win it here with all the fans in their seats. It was a great win."

The night after letting the opportunity elude them, the Sox unleashed all they had at the Orioles -- a dazzling pitching performance by Derek Lowe and a thunderous outburst by their record-breaking lineup -- to clinch their dearly coveted entry into a playoff field that by nearly all indications lacks a prohibitive favorite.

"We got in, so I'm real excited," said Jason Varitek, the voice of reason and restraint all season. "I like our chances."

In an achievement that all but ensured Little will return for another season, the Sox improved to 94-65, topping last year's victory total (93) and raising hopes anew that this year could indeed be the year. The team was built partly by a rookie general manager, Theo Epstein, whose team responded to the demands of the intense Boston market as positively as any in recent history.

Epstein credited the team's uncanny resilience in part for the Sox clinching their 15th postseason berth in franchise history. Much of that resilience was a credit to Little, who kept the club on course as it sailed through some occasionally violent seas. But even Little marveled at the team's ability to weather adversity.

"We saw some devastating and earth-shattering losses, but the next day we came out and did the job and acted like nothing happened," he said. "I knew we were special from the second game of the season when we came back [from a crushing walkoff loss to the Devil Rays] and it looked like nothing affected us. You saw that happen time and again as the season went on, right through the last week."

Varitek went to the playoffs with the Sox in 1998 and '99, but he said something separates this team from the others.

"This team is special because a lot of other teams probably would have ended up being 81-81 with the way we lost some games and won some games," he said. "It's special because it has a short-term memory."

With the 64th straight sellout crowd in full-throated adulation, the Sox decisively dispatched the Orioles as Nomar Garciaparra and Millar led the way by swatting three-run homers. Lowe did his part by surrendering only two runs on two hits over six innings, and every Sox starter chipped in at least one hit.

"As the months go by, you realize more and more how much talent we have baseball-wise and what a great group of quality guys we have," said Bill Mueller, who went 3 for 5 to improve his league-leading average to .327. "I'm just very, very happy it turned out this way."

The Sox surged ahead so swiftly -- 12-0 after four innings -- that the game took on a festive tone almost from the start. While the joyful throng waited to join in the celebration, the Sox began pulling their starters as early as the sixth inning while the champagne chilled in the clubhouse. It was a fine tribute to the bit players, many of whom have never been to the postseason.

"There are a lot of people in this clubhouse who never experienced anything like this before," Little said. "I think they should enjoy it while they get an opportunity. We just hope the ones who haven't experienced it before can enjoy it a few more times."

The Sox clinched their first playoff berth at home since Sept. 24, 1998, when they snagged the franchise's first wild-card invitation. By winning the last game of the regular season on Yawkey Way, the Sox improved to 53-28 at home, their best record in the Hub in 15 years. The clincher allowed them to depart pressure-free for their final three games of the regular season at Tampa Bay. They departed on wings of glee.

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