As wordsmith Yogi Berra might put it, the Red Sox reached a fork in the road and they took it. Boy, did they take it.
Coasting aimlessly toward oblivion as they returned home Sunday from a crippling 1-5 road trip, the Sox had two choices. They could continue their dispiriting trek toward baseball's netherworld or gun the engine and head for glory.
They chose the fast lane, and by the time they dodged a late fright from the A's and staged an electrifying 8-7 walkoff victory in the 10th inning last night, the resurgent Sox reclaimed a share of the wild-card lead and sent notice they just may have resurrected their chances for a division title.
"We got written off, but this team is much better than we've been playing and we're going to show the world that we are," Johnny Damon vowed after he raced around from first base and dived in with the winning run on Bill Mueller's two-out double to left-center off Justin Lehr before a 35,144 at Fenway Park.
Pack away the black crepe. The Sox are back, as they showed by winning a third straight game for the first time in more than a month and capping the first three-game sweep of the A's at Fenway since 1998.
"The sky's not falling anymore," said Kevin Millar, who went 3 for 4 and knocked in two runs as he embodied the team's resilience.
The walkoff thriller unfolded after the Sox squandered a 7-1 lead, with the A's chipping away for two runs in the sixth off starter Curt Schilling, three more in seventh and eighth against Mike Timlin, and the tying run in the eighth off Keith Foulke, who blew his second save opportunity in six days.
"This was probably a better way to win than going out and winning, 7-0, although I would have enjoyed that more," Schilling said. "You need a jump-start every now and then. We showed a lot of character right there."
Damon, who has reestablished himself as one of the league's most productive leadoff hitters, ignited the winning rally by singling to left off Lehr with two outs in the 10th. Then came Mueller, who was batting second in the lineup for the first time since he returned from the disabled list six days earlier. Batting lefthanded against the righthanded Lehr, Mueller took one pitch for a ball then laced a fastball to the gap in left.
Damon began sprinting from first, but we was running with a sore left knee after painfully fouling a ball off it for the second time this season. Mueller, uncertain Damon could score on the play, tried to will him home.
"I was talking him through it, I know that," Mueller said. "I wanted him to. He's so fast, I'm happy he plays for us."
Like Mueller, Damon was not convinced he had enough time to beat the throw to the plate.
"I knew I had to go hard," Damon said. "I knew I wasn't going to make the decision myself. I had to rely on [third base coach] Dale Sveum, and things worked out for us."
Damon narrowly beat the throw before his teammates mobbed him and the crowd exalted to the strains of "Dirty Water."
"It's very hard to sweep a good team," said manager Terry Francona. "A sweep is so much better than sacrificing this game and saying, `Well, we won two out of three.' That's just not good enough."
The dramatic finish unfolded after Foulke blew the save in the eighth by allowing a two-out, tying triple to Jermaine Dye. Foulke surrendered an opposite-field, run-scoring single to Scott Hatteberg to allow one of the runners he inherited from Timlin to score.
"I'm embarrassed to go out there and pitch like I did in the eighth," Foulke said. "But the bottom line is, the guys came back and picked us up and we won the game. That's the important thing."
Foulke had little interest in analyzing the pitches he threw to Hatteberg and Dye.
"It doesn't matter what the pitch was," he said. "They were bad pitches, up in the zone, not where they're supposed to be."
But Foulke returned to hold the A's scoreless in the ninth before Curtis Leskanic pitched a scoreless 10th to pick up the victory.
"Hopefully, we realize we don't have too big of a luxury to have too many more bad streaks," Foulke said. "We've just got to play good ball the rest of the year."
The Sox bullpen effectively cost Schilling a chance to improve to 12-4 and become the first pitcher in baseball to post eight wins at home this season (he is 7-0 at Fenway). In his last start before the All-Star Game, Schilling was strong enough to carry the Sox into the sixth inning before he departed with one out, runners at the corners, and the 7-3 lead.
"Coming out with a win like that is huge," Schilling said. "It takes a lot of the added frustration away."
Schilling, who continues to require two doses of the anesthetic Marcaine each time he pitches, surrendered the three runs on 11 hits, including a solo shot by Eric Byrnes. He walked none and struck out eight before Alan Embree spared him further damage by holding off the A's in the sixth.
"To me, the line score didn't add up to how I felt," Schilling said. "I felt good. I thought I made some good pitches."
David Ortiz, who had gone all but silent in the first two games of the series, and Manny Ramirez helped to power the Sox as Ortiz launched a solo homer in the first inning (his 23d) before Ramirez topped that by unleashing his 24th, a three-run shot in the third. Both blows came against A's starter Rich Harden.
Millar also provided further evidence he may be emerging from his power funk, as he dinged the Wall twice, singling in the second inning and doubling home two runs in the fifth. Trot Nixon also launched a sacrifice fly in the fifth and tried to win it in the ninth with a two-out triple before David McCarty grounded out to end the inning.
But the victory came soon, helping to embolden the Sox.
"Just getting everybody back and healthy is what it's all about," Millar said. "This lineup is going to do some damage."