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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Still bubbling with anticipation

While Boston was still basking in the afterglow of Tuesday's game for the ages, veteran Sox employee Tommy McLaughlin picked up champagne on his way to work Wednesday morning. Parked in front of Dorrs Liquor Mart on Washington Street in Brighton center, McLaughlin loaded six cases into his 1999 Ford Expedition. Two cases of Korbel and four cases of Freixenet. The bill was more than $700, but owner Skip Dervishian put it on Tommy's tab. He knows the Sox are good for it.

The champagne was still on ice late last night when the Sox went to bed after losing a 7-3 decision to the Baltimore Orioles. It'll be there when Derek Lowe takes the mound tonight in the Fenway regular-season finale. If the Sox lose again, they'll simply buy new bubbly when they wake up in Tampa tomorrow. The Red Sox need only one win in their remaining four games (or one Seattle loss in Oakland) to clinch a wild-card spot and return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

The Nation was braced for a celebration. Tuesday's 10th- inning walkoff victory was all the rage and many Sox came to the park with a feeling of confidence, almost entitlement. There was good feeling in the clubhouse, around the cage, and in the stands before the game. The clubhouse television was turned into the Seattle-Anaheim game, and at 6:11 scoreboard operator Garrett Tingle, standing inside the Green Monster, slid an "F" into the window alongside the Angels-Mariners score.

"F" for final score. The Angels had defeated the Mariners, 4-0. Everything was in place. All the Sox had to do was go out and beat the moribund Orioles.

Veteran Globe baseball scribe Larry Whiteside was the ceremonial first-ball tosser and did a fine job.

Things went downhill from there. Sucking all the fresh air out of the Back Bay, John Burkett retired only one Oriole before he was yanked in a truly gruesome, seven-run first inning. "They should have left Whiteside in there," quipped Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram.

All kidding aside, Burkett, at least until last night, figured to be Boston's starting pitcher in the fourth game of the division series against Oakland. His performance not only put pink champagne on ice, it played with the fragile psyche of the again-fretful fandom. His ERA is 5.14.

Whom do you like now in Game 4 -- Burkett or Jeff Suppan?

Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner came for last night's game from New York and was one of the many disappointed Sox fans who'd been hoping for a bubbly bath after the game.

"I don't want to have to go to Tampa and bunk with Larry Lucchino," said Werner, as he stood alongside the Sox CEO.

Lucchino won't talk about any playoff preparations until the deal is final. His young general manager, Theo Epstein, said, "I'm not as superstitious as Larry," but didn't want to talk too much about the Sox playoff prospects until the club is officially registered in the tournament.

Taking a look back on the season, Epstein admitted that while Tuesday's win might have been the most thrilling ("The first time all year I had trouble getting to sleep after a game"), he put more weight on the Labor Day win in Philadelphia. That was the day the Sox traveled to the Vet dungeon and rallied for six in the ninth while Manny Ramirez refused to pinch hit. It was a win that brought the team together and ignited a season-making 7-2 road trip.

"It was a remarkable team victory," said Epstein. "We were without certain parts, but guys stepped up. It galvanized the clubhouse and we went out and had a terrific road trip. In retrospect, that win is critical to where we are now."

Where they are is on the threshold of the playoffs. Despite last night's letdown.

So while we're all busy deciding whether the team's good luck charm should be Mike Timlin's "Cowboy Up," David Ortiz's "Jump Around," Kevin Millar's Rally Karaoke Guy, or the lucky loose screws in Grady Little's palm, the Red Sox have to go out and win one more time. Then folks can start debating who should be the 11th pitcher on the playoff roster and whether to go with Tim Wakefield or Lowe in Game 2.

And then they can open the champagne.

Some might think champagne is a strange reward for finishing second to the Yankees for a record-sixth consecutive season. But making the playoffs is making the playoffs. And besides, there have been weaker causes for celebration.

Phil Itzoe, traveling secretary of the Orioles for 36 years, remembered, "When we lost the first 21 games of the year in 1988, we carried champagne around to three different cities."

The Sox want to pop the corks tonight.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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