TORONTO - It was tied, up until the bottom of the ninth, until two outs were gone. A scoreless tie, no less. But instead of that game taking place at Rogers Centre, scoreless inning upon scoreless inning, the dramatic pitching duel was happening 400 miles to the south.
Roy Halladay and Jon Lester - the presumptive premier matchup of the day - were slogging through a 6-3 win for the Blue Jays, while the Yankees and Orioles got gems from Brian Burres and Alfredo Aceves. That other game, between teams without playoff aspirations, did have meaning for at least one team playing up in Canada, because a Yankees loss could have taken the Red Sox a step closer to clinching their playoff spot.
But New York did not cooperate, and neither did Halladay.
"You can't spot a pitcher like Halladay four runs, or five runs, in the second inning," Lester said. "You're just digging yourself too big of a hole."
While Halladay did briefly falter in the third inning, allowing an RBI single to David Ortiz and a two-run homer to birthday boy Jason Bay, it was Lester whose early trouble left the Sox in a deficit from which they could not recover. It was his second loss of the season at Rogers Centre, this time in front of 40,554, meaning that two of his six losses this season have come north of the border. And he almost had a repeat of his disastrous last time here, the outing responsible for his only other defeat in his last eight starts.
It was a scenario that hadn't been witnessed since, well, Lester's last trip to the pitcher's mound here. Relievers up early in the bullpen, in this case David Aardsma in the second inning, ready to bail out the Sox starter. But even though it took him four runs and nine batters to make it through the inning, Lester did just that - and continued on to pitch five more, coming out after the seventh.
Other than that inning, and the first, in which he gave up a single run, the Blue Jays didn't get much off Lester. There were, in fact, just as many openings on the Sox side.
"I'd rather have chances," Francona said, of the Sox against ace Halladay. "He's always one pitch away from a double play. He sinks the ball so well, he cuts it. He threw a couple changeups today. He's got a lot. That's why he's got 19 wins. And he does it against everybody. He's got tremendous stuff."
With no outs in the game, there were men on first and second base, with Ortiz at the plate. But he flied to right, and neither Kevin Youkilis nor Bay could convert, either.
The Sox loaded the bases in the fifth inning, but Jed Lowrie struck out swinging on a Halladay cutter to end the frame.
And, once again, the Sox had two men on with one out in the eighth against Brandon League. But Coco Crisp grounded to first, and Alex Cora's grounder to the pitcher couldn't bring home the runners from second and third, when Francona chose not to hit for him. The manager could have gone with Sean Casey, though he was thinking more along the lines of Chris Carter.
"I thought about it," Francona said. "If we would have needed an extra-base hit, we were going to hit Carter. But because it was second and third, we decided on AC hitting. Thought he had a hit. He was about 2 inches from a hit. He had a good at-bat."
Not good enough, though. Certainly not to make up for that second inning.
The Toronto scoring started in the inning with a double to left field by Marco Scutaro, plating Scott Rolen and Kevin Mench, and pushing John McDonald to third. Then Jose Bautista drove in a run with a single, bringing up Alex Rios. The right fielder grounded the ball to shortstop, and Cora threw home. But the ball hit Scutaro as he was coming in to the plate, giving Cora the error and extending the inning. Two batters later, Lester got Lyle Overbay to ground into a double play to end the inning.
"I'm not sure AC had anything but that play," Francona said. "My point is, I don't disagree with his attempt."
The attempt might have been right, but the execution was off. It was that kind of day, though Halladay - even on a slightly off afternoon - easily can do that to a team.
"It probably wasn't his best today, throwing a lot more pitches," Bay said. "Usually he cruises through eight or nine with about 80 pitches. We got him up a little bit. That's what he does. Even on the days where he doesn't have his absolute best stuff, he's still one of the better pitchers in the league. We got a few runs off him; you're not going to get a ton."
So the Sox had to wait at least another day, as their shot at the American League East title took a hit. With their loss and Tampa Bay's win over the Twins, the Sox have fallen 2 1/2 games back of the Rays, three games in the loss column, which is compounded by the Rays' edge in the tiebreaker. While it is not impossible that the division can go to the Sox, it is looking more and more unlikely.
Still, even with the loss, there are no worries with this team about the postseason. No tension about the race with Tampa Bay, no concern over one loss during the final days of the postseason run. The Red Sox expect to get into the playoffs - entirely reasonable with their magic number at 2 with eight games left - and expect to win once they get there.
Pressure? Doesn't seem that way.
"Absolutely not," Jason Varitek said. "We've been here. We could have crumbled down, 5-0, with Roy on the mound. That shows that we're not [feeling pressure], more than anything."