Theo Epstein trusted that the Red Sox would hold up their end of a championship bargain, but thought it was a good idea to send a text message to Kevin Millar, exhorting the former Sox partymeister to help put an end last night to Yankee aspirations in Baltimore.
"I told him, 'You own [Yankees pitcher Mike] Mussina. I said, 'You owe us one,' " Epstein said. "You've got to win at least one game for us singlehandedly. And tell [Orioles manager Dave] Trembley I don't want to see [Triple A] Ottawa out there."
"He wrote back, 'We'll see what we can do. I'll do my best for you.' "
It was the prelude to a made-for-TV experience. The Red Sox, whose 5-2 win over the Minnesota Twins ended at 9:39 p.m., became champions of the American League East an hour and 17 minutes later, at 10:56, when Millar and the Orioles beat the Yankees, 10-9, in 10 innings, a comeback win the Sox watched from inside their clubhouse while several thousand fans watched on the Fenway Park video scoreboard.
Millar did his part, getting hit by a pitch by Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth, when the Orioles rallied from three runs down to tie the score on a bases-loaded triple by former Sox outfielder Jay Payton. A third ex-Sox player, Chad Bradford, was the winning pitcher after escaping a bases-loaded jam in the 10th, and Melvin Mora dropped a two-out squeeze bunt to bring home the winning run after Millar looked at a called third strike.
Naturally, the irrepressible Millar was heard from in the midst of a wild Sox celebration that reached its apex when Alex Cora took command of the Fenway Park sound system, blasting "Sweet Caroline" while Jonathan Papelbon, wearing sliding shorts and a T-shirt, did a mad Irish jig on the mound.
"He texted me back and said, 'I told you I'd come through for you,' " Epstein said. "He said, 'I'm still sitting on that changeup, by the way. Congratulations.' "
The Sox had not won a division title since 1995, Last night, they ended a run of nine straight division titles by the Yankees. With Cleveland winning in Kansas City, the Red Sox are assured of opening their Division Series against the Los Angeles Angels next week in Fenway Park. The Indians will meet the Yankees in the other divisional matchup. With two games left, the Sox and Indians are tied for the best record in the league at 95-65; the winner gets to choose to start its first round with a Wednesday-Friday format or a Thursday-Friday schedule, the former favoring a team that would like to pitch its top two starters twice in the best-of-five series.
"Winning the division was important," said owner John W. Henry, who received a shampoo of Korbel California Champagne Extra Dry from Papelbon. "I think we all knew it was important."
Last night, the fatigue factor that shut down the homegrown phenom, Clay Buchholz, did not apply to the imported phenom, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who grew up in a culture where if you weren't tired, you weren't trying.
Matsuzaka, who became a legend in his native Japan when he threw 250 pitches in a high school game, served notice he is hardly on his last legs.
He went eight strong innings, limiting the Twins to two runs on six hits while crossing the 200 threshold in both strikeouts and innings.
"I like the chances of any team that can get to October - anything can happen," Epstein said. "You've got to win 11 games, you've got to win them one at a time. Shoot, as the guy who pitched tonight demonstrated, we have starting pitching that can take over a game and can win it. We should have a bullpen that should be well rested, nail down some victories, and we have a lineup that grinds some tough at-bats, real solid defense, and some base runners who can make a difference in a close game. I like our chances as much as anybody's. It's time to go out and do it."
David Ortiz, meanwhile, displayed the kind of finishing kick that Yaz made famous in '67, when he went 7 for 8 in the last two games of the Impossible Dream season against the Twins.
Ortiz hit his 35th home run, doubled, and singled, continuing an extraordinary run that began Wednesday night against Oakland and has continued the last two nights against his former team.
Ortiz walked, singled, doubled, and doubled in his last four plate appearances against the Athletics Wednesday. Thursday, it was double, single, home run, single, and walk against the Twins.
Last night he doubled and scored on Mike Lowell's single in the first inning, Lowell then coming home on J.D. Drew's double that kicked around in the left-field corner.
Ortiz singled in the third inning, setting up the Sox' third run, which scored on Lowell's broken-bat infield out.
Ortiz finally was retired in the sixth on a ground ball to second, ending a streak of 11 consecutive plate appearances in which he reached safely. He was not deterred for long, hitting one into the Monster seats off Twins reliever Matt Guerrier to make it 5-2 in the eighth.
The major league record for consecutive times reaching base is 16, set by Ted Williams in 1957.
"I do nothing but fight back," said Ortiz, who was given a two-fisted bubble bath by pitcher Jon Lester before cocking an ear to the crowd and asking the fans to make noise. "That's me."
When Papelbon finished off the Twins in a 1-2-3 ninth for his 37th save, they were still playing in Baltimore. The sellout crowd of 36,843 at Fenway Park broke into a chant of "Let's go, Orioles" as the video scoreboard switched to the live feed of the Yankees game.
"LET'S SEE IF THE ORIOLES CAN WORK SOME MAGIC" was the message posted on the board. A few Sox players, like Jason Varitek and Kevin Youkilis, left the clubhouse without waiting to see the end of the Yankees game.
"I'm still going to party," Lowell said while trying to catch a glimpse of the game over a circle of reporters, "even if they want to go home."
Moments later, a huge cheer went up in the clubhouse when Payton's line drive skipped to the wall, three Orioles runners crossing the plate. Media were ushered out of the clubhouse, allowing the team to watch the end of the game in private. Varitek and Youkilis hustled back to the clubhouse. Manny Ramírez and J.D. Drew, it appears, never made it back. They were nowhere to be seen during the celebration that broke out when Mora dropped his bunt, the players rushing onto the field to live the moment.
Papelbon doused his wife, Ashley, with champagne, then lifted her off the ground. Ortiz wrapped his arms around his wife, Tiffany, then gave a wet embrace to Larry Lucchino, the Sox CEO.
"Very sweet," Lucchino said. "It feels great, of course, but it's very cool that the fans stayed afterward."
Lucchino was with the Orioles when they were champions. "I loved it," he said of his former team knocking off the Yankees. "The poetry of Kevin Millar being in the middle of it, and we love Melvin Mora."
While Terry Francona celebrated in his office with a victory cigar, rookie Dustin Pedroia roamed the field. "I'm just having fun," he said.
At the stroke of midnight, organ music wafted over the ballpark. The song? "The Impossible Dream."
Then, long after the field had been cleared, one player came back out. It was Matsuzaka, who bent down and scooped up a handful of Fenway Park dirt. Or maybe, as Henry suggested, it was magic dust.
"A magical season," the owner said, "from Day 1."