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It's a baby step they hope leads to bigger things

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Theo Epstein was as perfectly turned out as always last night, if you overlooked the Korbel California Champagne Brut glistening in his hair and spattered on his pants.

"It started out subdued and understated -- I promise," the Red Sox general manager said while taking a brief respite from the party behind him, a private little affair in the visitors' clubhouse for the accidental tourists celebrating the start of another journey they hope will take them deep into October.

"This is the beginning," manager Terry Francona said after the Red Sox, for the second straight season, assured themselves of a spot in the playoffs by beating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 7-3. At the least, the Sox have assured themselves entry as the wild-card team. Mathematically, they still have a chance to overtake the New York Yankees for the AL East title, but any combination of four Yankee wins or Sox losses in the season's last six games will end that fantasy.

But there is no shame in holding the wild card. The last two teams to win the World Series, the Anaheim Angels and Florida Marlins, were wild-card entries. So while the Sox carried on in a far less raucous fashion than they did back home last Sept. 25 -- when Kevin Millar led a passel of teammates on a mad dash to the Baseball Tavern, where they climbed behind the bar and poured drinks for the fans -- they had loaded some bubbly on the plane yesterday, and they did not let it go to waste.

Francona, who was bench coach with the Oakland A's when the Sox clinched last season, wasn't about to pronounce judgment yesterday afternoon on what should constitute proper party decorum. The Yankees, who clinched a playoff berth last week in Yankee Stadium, barely acknowledged the accomplishment. But if we have learned anything about these free spirits, they are not the Yankees.

"It's their right to do what they want," Francona said. "If they're excited to be in the playoffs, they have a right to be excited. That's OK. What's the big deal? They're happy to be in the wild card. What's wrong with that?"

And if it reached bacchanal proportions again? "It would be like any other night," Francona said in what was intended to be a joke -- we think.

On the field, beyond a right hand pointed skyward by shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who during his Montreal exile had never been on a playoff qualifier, the Sox reacted to last night's win with little more than their usual postgame conga line of hugs, handshakes, and elaborate hand slaps, with a few extra embraces thrown in. (Yes, Butch, that was Curt Schilling slapping Pedro Martinez on the back, then wrapping his arms around him.)

Inside, however, it was champagne and cigars, hurrahs and hilarity.

DH David Ortiz, who did not play last night, wore what looked to be a red bathing cap and goggles for the occasion, the perfect accessories for the man who preferred not to be blinded by sprayed libations. Schilling prowled the clubhouse as both hunter and hunted. Martinez, in the midst of a TV interview, suddenly found himself hoisted toward the ceiling, courtesy of a free piggyback ride from catcher Jason Varitek.

"Probably one of the biggest reasons we are where we are, and where we're going, is this big monster right here," said Martinez, happily rubbing his catcher's porcupine head.

And just where are they going?

"I am expecting to go further and further," Martinez said. "I don't want any more of just clinching the wild card."

Go all the way?

"There wouldn't be any reason to play," he said, "if we didn't believe that."

A half-dozen fans, wearing fake beards and white tunics, had showed up in the left-field bleachers clearly in the mood for something out of the ordinary. The apocalypse? Nah. The "What Would Johnny Do?" placards gave away these Damon freaks, and their hero obliged with a three-run home run that was followed in short order by a 458-foot home run onto the roof of the center-field cigar bar by Manny Ramirez, fueling a five-run fifth inning. Two more home runs in the eighth, by Varitek and David McCarty, and it was party on.

This much you should understand: No one wants a piece of these Sox in the playoffs. "People talk about the Red Sox having to face [Johan] Santana twice in the playoffs?" one scout said with a snort, referring to a possible first-round matchup between the Sox and Minnesota. "How about the Twins having to face Schilling twice? Good luck to them."

Red-letter dates in Tampa may be in short supply for the Sox, but that's not to say they haven't had their moments. There was Ramirez's famous U-turn back to the dugout a couple of years ago, Shea Hillenbrand's pinch grand slam onto a catwalk, and Carl Everett's end-of-the-season team party, at which he could have counted the guests on two hands.

The others mostly revolved around beanballs and brawls. The most notable was the 2000 frat-house fight started when Martinez hit Gerald Williams with the second pitch of the game, and before the night was over, four players had been hit by pitches (Brian Daubach twice), eight people had been ejected (all Devil Rays), and two players were hurt, Daubach with a hyperextended elbow and Lou Merloni with a concussion.

In the aftermath of Hillenbrand's slam off Victor Zambrano, Ryan Rupe hit Hillenbrand with a pitch. He also hit Nomar Garciaparra, whom the Devil Rays accused of stealing signs from second base before Hillenbrand went deep. In retaliation, Trot Nixon flung his bat in Rupe's direction.

A connection between that business and what took place last night, when Devil Rays rookie Scott Kazmir, responding to two of his teammates being hit by Bronson Arroyo, plunked Ramirez and Millar? Kazmir was acquired by the Devil Rays from the Mets in a trade for Zambrano.

Kazmir and Lou Piniella were ejected after the back-to-back plunkings, but while benches emptied twice, cooler heads prevailed -- at least until the corks were popped.

"These guys are fun, man," said Cabrera, wearing sunglasses. "They are super players, but even when they are stars, when they find another player who wants to win, they take him in, too."

Has any Sox player this season had more fun than Ramirez, who easily could have gone the other way but instead embraced this team as his own and responded with an MVP season, even after it appeared he was voted off the island?

"Everybody is having fun," he said. "This has been the best group of guys yet. We have made the first step. I don't want to jump too high, but let's see what happens."

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