CHICAGO -- The baseball gods appeared to smile on the Red Sox last night as they opened the finale of their weekend series in the Windy City. The Rangers already had lost to the Royals, giving the Sox a half-game edge in the American League wild-card race. And the Yankees had fallen to the Angels, closing the gap in the AL East to six games. All the surging Sox needed to do to seize a full-game lead in the wild-card derby and jump to within 5 1/2 games of the Yankees in the division was complete a three-game sweep of the White Sox.
Done deal, even if the smiling gods turned a bit mischievous before it was over. The game log will show that Boston's flip-flopped sluggers, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, made all the difference when they rescued a tailspinning Derek Lowe from defeat by cracking dramatic back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning to overcome a 5-4 deficit and lift the Sox to a sweeping 6-5 victory before 34,355 at US Cellular Field.
But the box score won't reflect the scare the Sox endured in the bottom of the eighth when Ramirez, who for an instant appeared safely stationed under a routine fly to left field by Ben Davis, slipped and fell on his hands, allowing Davis to reach on a one-out double. The slipup sent Roberto Alomar, who was running for Carl Everett, to third and put the Sox in dire straits.
Fate left it to Mike Timlin to address the situation. And so he did, first prevailing in a nine-pitch struggle with Ross Gload, who popped out, then winning an eight-pitch showdown by getting Timo Perez to fly to center.
It was one rescue effort after another for the Sox as they won their sixth straight game and the 12th of their last 15.
"Early in the year, we weren't doing that and the mistakes would stay on the board," Timlin said. "We'd erase them once in a while, but we weren't consistent in doing it. Lately, we've been pretty consistent in picking each other up."
The guys who most needed the help were the most grateful. They included Ramirez, who said he simply slipped on the dry grass.
"He did an awesome job," Ramirez said of Timlin. "He picked me up right there. Things like that are going to happen all year-round, so that's what you have teammates for, to go out there and pick you up."
Like Ramirez and Ortiz did for Lowe.
"That's what's fun when everyone plays with confidence, like we are now," Lowe said. "We're keeping this train going in the right direction. And with everyone else losing today, it was another big win."
It was big, too, for manager Terry Francona as the back-to-backers by Ramirez (off Chicago starter Freddy Garcia) and Ortiz (off Damaso Marte) bailed out Lowe, who had squandered an early 4-0 lead and let Chicago sneak ahead in the seventh on a two-run homer by Carlos Lee. Lowe also surrendered a three-run blast to Paul Konerko in the fifth inning to put the Sox in jeopardy.
Francona marveled at the exceptional timing of his sluggers-in-chief.
"I think there's a tendency to take them for granted, but that game changed in two pitches," Francona said. "You don't see that very often. They're two pretty extraordinary hitters."
They may also have rescued Francona from a habit he hopes to kick. The manager had a bad reaction to Ramirez's stunning game-tying shot.
"I've had everybody trying to get me to quit chewing this tobacco," Francona said. "I swallowed half of it. I may quit."
Ramirez, who stood by his locker waiting for reporters to explain his slipup, downplayed his home run, as always. But he seemed to enjoy his home run race with Ortiz. Ramirez hit his 33d homer, Ortiz his 31st.
"Every time I hit one, David hits another one," Ramirez said. "We're on a good pace."
After Timlin's rescue effort, Keith Foulke closed the deal in the ninth inning for his 22d save.
"Sometimes you need an extraordinary effort," Francona said, "and we got it from some people tonight."
Good thing Ramirez and Ortiz delivered, as did Doug Mientkiewicz, who slugged his first homer in a Sox uniform, a solo shot off Garcia in the second inning. Mientkiewicz's jack came after the Sox scored three runs in the first inning, with Ramirez, Ortiz, and Jason Varitek knocking in one run apiece.
Mientkiewicz also made a sensational diving stab of a shot down the first base line by Everett to flip to Lowe for the third out of the first inning, sparing Lowe from toiling further in a 31-pitch ordeal. "I've struggled all year on the offensive side," Mientkiewicz said, "but it finally felt good to feel like I contributed."
The shots by Ramirez and Ortiz helped Lowe avoid a loss, with a major assist from the Sox pen, including Curtis Leskanic (2-5) and Mike Myers, who helped to hold off Chicago before Timlin and Foulke stepped up. Ramirez was in a groove all weekend, knocking in 12 runs in the sweep. But Ortiz (2 for 3 with a double, homer, and two RBIs) entered the game in an 0-for-17 slump.
"You don't keep him down very long," said Mientkiewicz, his former teammate with the Twins. "The way he looks at it, `Somebody's got to pay.' "
Which the White Sox did, to Lowe's benefit. The plain fact for Lowe was that the home run pitches to Lee and Konerko made an otherwise decent outing appear subpar. In all, Lowe allowed the five runs on seven hits and two walks over 6 2/3 innings as his ERA rose to 5.32 from 5.24.
But it was all good as the Sox departed for Toronto with their eyes not only on the wild-card lead but the division title as well.
"The Yankees have always been in my sights," Timlin said. "The whole goal is to get to the playoffs, but what we want to do is win the American League East."