As the night went deeper, and the zeros advanced across the scoreboard next to "BOSTON," it became increasingly difficult not to notice what was happening next to "NYY."
A seventh straight win by the Yankees, and a loss by the Red Sox in the rubber game of their series against the last-place Devil Rays, and New York would be in position to apply a python's squeeze on the Sox' lead in the American League East this weekend.
Instead, there was a frenzied Jonathan Papelbon, leaping over the dugout wall and applying a crushing bear hug on Kevin Youkilis, as they both awaited the arrival of David Ortiz at home plate after the return of that almost forgotten Sox staple, the Ortiz walkoff home run, in a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay.
"That was such a huge, huge win for us, man," said Papelbon, who made a rare appearance with the Sox behind in the ninth inning and emerged with the victory before a crowd of 36,931, the team's 379th straight sellout but the first this season to see Ortiz hurl his helmet heavenward before crossing the plate after his winning two-run home run. "I don't think you know how big that was for us. [Curt] Schilling called it. He was next to me in the dugout.
"That was one of our biggest wins of the season, not only because it keeps the five-game lead, but for the momentum it gives us going into the weekend."
The Sox' lead remains five games over the Yankees, who play tonight in Toronto before heading to the Fens for three, including a potential Roger Clemens sighting Sunday night. The Sox have 15 games left, the Bombers 17.
"We know it will be interesting," manager Terry Francona said after the Sox rebounded from a 4-0 deficit, one night after coming back from 8-1 down. "Hope it will be a lot of fun."
Ortiz's towering fly ball in the ninth inning off closer Al Reyes caught a serendipitous wind current, spun Tampa Bay right fielder Delmon Young around, and - doink! - struck a fan standing in the front row of the grandstand.
"I don't know, man, I thought it was too high," Ortiz said of his first walkoff home run this season, coming on a night he also hit a three-run home run in the third inning to account for the balance of the Sox' offense. "That was a good pitch by my boy Reyes. That's a pitch you throw guys when you don't want them hitting it in the stands. I put a good swing on it."
Ortiz now has 31 home runs and 104 RBIs, his fifth straight season of 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs. He has 16 walkoff hits for the Sox in his career (counting the postseason), including 10 home runs.
"We could tell it was well-hit, but we couldn't tell if it was fair or foul, or if it had enough to get out," said Sox reliever Kyle Snyder, who was in the bullpen when Ortiz connected. "We saw David bend over to one side like he couldn't tell if it was fair or foul, either, and was trying to give it some body language.
"The wind was a factor on that ball for Young. I think he was thinking the same thing we were. It looked like it was foul initially, but curved back more than we anticipated. It was potentially catchable, yes, but it was too late for him to get back to the ball. We all ran to the bullpen side of the outfield wall, and when we saw it go out, it was absolute pandemonium.
"I told him I'd been waiting over a year for that. The last one he hit came last July 31, in a game I was pitching. He laughed when I said it."
For Julio Lugo, Ortiz's longtime pal and first-year teammate, it was a new experience in a Red Sox uniform. No Sox player had hit a walkoff home run since Carlos Peña, the Haverhill native now putting up monster numbers for the Devil Rays, did it Sept. 4, 2006, against the White Sox.
"It's a great feeling, what you play for," said Lugo, who had drawn a full-count walk from Reyes to open the ninth. "He's just the best, man. There's nobody like that."
The Yankees held service in Toronto, beating the Blue Jays behind the resuscitated Mike Mussina, 4-1. The Sox, already down one cleanup hitter (Manny Ramírez), spotted the Devil Rays another when Mike Lowell called in sick (officially, it was a text message), and for seven innings could not generate any more offense beyond Ortiz's 30th home run of the season.
When Ortiz's ball cleared the Devil Rays' bullpen to make it 4-3, Tampa Bay, in the third, it appeared the teams intended to stage an encore of the 16-10 hit-o-rama from the night before. But Devil Rays starter Edwin Jackson righted himself, allowing just two singles before leaving after the sixth, and Julian Tavarez, pitching for just the second time in 12 days this month, rescued Jon Lester with three hitless innings after his premature exit, Lester knocked out with two out in the fourth after a yield of four runs on eight hits and four walks.
Lester's abbreviated outing hardly was a balm for a Sox bullpen that went six deep the night before after Tim Wakefield was knocked out after just three-plus innings. That was four short outings in a week for a Sox starter, two for Wakefield and one for Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Lester's troubles began with the game's first batter, Akinori Iwamura, who singled, took second on an infield out, and scored on Peña's base hit. B.J. Upton followed with a fly down the right-field line that hit the foul pole for the cheapest of home runs, and it was 3-0 while many in the crowd were still in the concourses. One out later, Brendan Harris doubled and scored on a base hit by Johnny Gomes, and the Devil Rays had a 4-0 lead.
But Tavarez, followed by Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, and finally Papelbon, held the Devil Rays to one hit, a bloop single off Delcarmen when Pedroia and J.D. Drew crossed wires, over the final 5 1/3 innings.
"Tavarez came in and did a great job," Francona said. "If he doesn't do what he does, we get that [bullpen] line moving way too early, and it's a different game."
Instead, the night belonged to Big Papi. "It's that time of year," Francona said, "and you guys know it."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.