ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Take it from Theo Epstein, who sounded a little bit like Tina Turner revving up in the opening of "Proud Mary" when he noted during the sudsy clinching party Monday that the Red Sox achieve absolutely nothing nice and easy.
Epstein missed the latest installment of the team's tumultuous trek toward October, as he returned home to catch up with another pop star, his pal Eddie Vedder, and Pearl Jam. While the general manager rocked out at the FleetCenter last night, the Sox struggled mightily to overcome Derek Lowe's latest misadventure, a disastrous outing in which the sinkerballer coughed up five runs while recording only seven outs against the Devil Rays.
As it turned out, the ending was nice for the Sox, but it sure wasn't easy. After scrambling back from a 5-1 deficit to force an 8-8 deadlock in the sixth inning, the Sox persevered until the 11th, when Kevin Millar swatted a two-
out, two-run homer off Tampa Bay closer Danys Baez for a 10-8 victory before 20,116 at Tropicana Field. Millar knocked in Gabe Kapler, who entered as a pinch runner after David Ortiz doubled. "That's not the way you want to do it, but we do have a way of coming back," manager Terry Francona said. "That's a real good trait of our ball club. The flip side of that is, we get down a lot, which is not good."
With their fourth straight victory and 45th come-from-behind triumph, the Sox gained a half-game in their last-gasp effort to catch the division-leading Yankees, whose game against the Twins in the Bronx was washed out by remnants of Hurricane Jeanne. The Sox trail the Yankees by 2 1/2 games with five to play (the Yankees have six to go).
"This was nice because we're right there in the East," said Millar, whose homer was reminiscent of his 16th-inning game-winner last year at the Trop. "It was big for us to keep winning."
The Yankees face a doubleheader today after another blow to their rotation, an injury to Orlando Hernandez. And the Sox, who go with Pedro Martinez tonight in the series finale against the Rays, hoped to roll on despite the comfort of already clinching a playoff berth.
"There's a chance for a letdown, but this team knows we have bigger plans on our mind," said Johnny Damon, who delivered one of the key blows in the comeback, a three-run triple in a four-run fourth inning. "That's to keep on winning games, and hopefully there's a miracle and the Yankees struggle."
The Sox also matched last year's win total of 95 and kept alive their chance of reaching 100 for the first time since the 1946 team won 104. And though Francona has begun selectively resting key players to prepare for the postseason, he bristled at the suggestion that the Sox had conceded anything to the Yankees.
"We're going to try to win every [expletive] game," he said. "I think we played like that. We used a lot of people and kept battling and found a way to win."
With Lowe gone, the Sox dug themselves out of the 5-1 hole thanks largely to Damon's triple, a pair of two-run doubles in the fifth inning by the Dougs (Mirabelli and Mientkiewicz), and an RBI single by Manny Ramirez in the sixth inning to force the 8-8 deadlock.
A hangover from the clinching party?
"Our team was a lot more professional about clinching a playoff berth than a few of us probably thought," Damon said. "We're a bunch of idiots but we're grown-up idiots now. We celebrated the right way for a little bit and that was it."
They got a major assist from the bullpen. After Terry Adams, who relieved Lowe, departed after the fifth inning with the Sox trailing, 8-7, five relievers teamed to no-hit the Rays for the final six innings: Alan Embree, Scott Williamson, Pedro Astacio, Ramiro Mendoza, and Keith Foulke. The only Tampa Bay batter who reached base over that time was Tino Martinez, who drew a walk off Williamson in the seventh. Mendoza, who pitched the ninth and 10th, picked up the win to improve to 2-1 before Foulke finished in the 11th for his 31st save.
The drama unfolded after Lowe's third straight subpar start, a disturbing September trend that could threaten his chances of edging out Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield for a spot in the postseason rotation. Lowe, who has only one more start scheduled in the regular season (Sunday in Baltimore), backed himself into a corner by surviving only 2 1/3 innings against the Rays -- just 10 days after lasting one inning-plus in a 14-4 loss to the Yankees in the Bronx.
Lowe surrendered five runs on eight hits and a pair of walks. The thrashing raised his ERA over his last three starts to 16.20, hardly the stuff of October glory.
"I really haven't been pitching that well, that's really all you can say," Lowe said. "You have to try to keep things in perspective, and that's that we won."
Like the rest of the Sox, Lowe could thank Millar, who sported two large welts on his left rib cage from getting drilled with pitches on consecutive nights. As a reward for his winner, Millar received a celebratory spray of cologne from his pal, Ramirez.
"Did you get that at the car wash?" Millar joked.
"No," Ramirez said, "this is the expensive [stuff]."
Only the best for a team trying to be the best.