To his everlasting credit, Jorge Posada somehow held onto the ball. But as a symbol of the Red Sox' ferocious response to their late-inning meltdown the night before, nothing yesterday afternoon can eclipse the sixth-inning play of Eric Hinske, the former running back who starred for Menasha (Wis.) High School and let his football instincts take over when he lowered his left shoulder and leveled the Yankees catcher while trying to score on a grounder.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound Hinske was out on the play, but the Sox, with a 10-1 demolition of the Yankees yesterday afternoon, are much closer to being in as winners of their first division title in 12 years.
The Sox, who have 13 games left to play, hold a 5 1/2-game lead in the American League East over the Yankees, who have 14 left. The Sox' magic number to win their first division title since the Sons of Kevin Kennedy won in 1995 is down to nine.
"They got our pen [Friday] night and we got them today - we're right back where we started," said Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who yesterday was left in the pen by Josh Beckett, who won his 19th game and scored a TKO over Chien-Ming Wang in a duel of Cy Young Award candidates.
"We came out today and made a big statement - not only Beckett, but everyone in our lineup who had an at-bat made a big statement. That was awesome to see, and fun to be a part of."
Beckett was nails, giving up a bases-empty home run to Derek Jeter in the first, then allowing just two more singles over the next six innings. Beckett (19-6) struck out seven, including a run of four in a row that began when he whiffed Alex Rodriguez with a 94-mile-an-hour fastball on the outside black to end the third.
"I thought Beckett did exactly what we have come to expect and also needed," Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He pitched like an ace of a staff today. Against the best lineup in baseball, he went out there and did exactly what we needed."
David Ortiz, who said he'd slept little after what he called the "nightmare" of Friday night's 8-7 loss, reached base five times on two singles, a two-run double, and two walks.
Jacoby Ellsbury, inserted as a pinch runner after Kevin Youkilis was hit by a pitch and left the game with a bruised right wrist in the fifth, scored the go-ahead run on a single by J.D. Drew. The rookie singled home a run in the sixth, then came around to score, sliding under Posada just two batters after Hinske had flattened him. He singled home two more runs in the seventh. Ellsbury has now hit safely in all 13 games since being called up from Pawtucket and has driven in four runs and scored three in his first two games against the Yankees.
X-rays were negative on Youkilis, but he was "very sore," according to Francona, which would make Hinske a logical candidate to start at first tonight when the Sox face the Yankees and Roger Clemens in the teams' final regular-season meeting.
"Both teams are hungry and both teams want to win the division," said former Sox outfielder Johnny Damon, who was hitless in four trips. "Unfortunately, we're back at 5 1/2 . . . Mathematically, we're still in it. Obviously, [today] is crucial to us. We need to play well and we need other teams to play well. It's going to be tough, but we just need to go out there and keep winning ballgames."
Hinske started yesterday in left field because of his superior numbers against Wang (10 for 22, .455), although he was hitless against Wang in six at-bats this season. He struck out and flied out in his first two at-bats yesterday, but, with the Sox clinging to a 2-1 lead, doubled to the wall in center to open the sixth.
Hinske moved up on a single to left by Coco Crisp, but held at third when Julio Lugo flied to shallow left. The Yankee infield was playing in when Dustin Pedroia hit a ground ball to second.
"[Third base coach] DeMarlo Hale said I'm going on contact," Hinske said. "I'm trying to score a run. I realize I'm going to be out. The only play is to try to run [Posada] over. I hit him pretty good. I think it pumped up the team a little bit."
Hinske, who gained more than 1,000 yards as a running back at Menasha his junior year, once dreamed of playing football for the University of Wisconsin. But when his Badgers didn't recruit him, he went to the University of Arkansas on a baseball scholarship. Years later, the football mentality has never left.
"I put my shoulder down - I hadn't done that, I think, since the minor leagues," he said. "It felt great. I had fun playing high school football.
"I asked Posada my next at-bat if he was OK and he said he was fine."
Pedroia subsequently stole second, and Ellsbury followed with a base hit that scored Crisp to make it 3-1. The Yankees had a base open but elected to pitch to Ortiz, who hit a gapper, with Pedroia scoring and Ellsbury flying around the bases and sliding under Posada, who may have been braced for another collision.
"[Ellsbury's] been a catalyst for us, coming up in big situations, using his legs, his bat, his defense, and has given us a huge lift when we needed it," Francona said.
Wang was finished, as for the second straight game, the Sox gave little quarter to the Yankees' starting pitcher. For all the talk about the number the Yankees did on the Sox' bullpen Friday, and the potential postseason implications that held, the Sox in successive games ended Andy Pettitte's night after four innings and bounced Wang with two outs in the sixth.
The Yankees bullpen hardly covered itself in glory in the seventh inning yesterday, manager Joe Torre going through five pitchers while the Sox scored four times on two hits and five walks to take a 9-1 lead.
After reliever Mike Timlin struck out Rodriguez to end the Yankee eighth, Torre emptied his bench, inserting five subs, including right fielder Bronson Sardinha, who was making his major league debut. But no one interpreted that as the equivalent of a concession speech by the Bombers.
"They can turn things around in a heartbeat," Ortiz said.
Tonight, it will be up to a 45-year-old Rocket to try.