Leave it to the greatest rivalry in sports to nearly turn a lovefest into an alley fight.
One minute, all was bliss in the Fens yesterday as the Red Sox played their final home game of the regular season and their last scheduled contest against their bitter rivals from the Bronx. Curt Schilling had treated a delighted 34,582 to one of the finest pitching performances of the season, allowing one hit to the Yankees over seven innings en route to an 11-4 victory.
With "Sweet Caroline" wafting through the little bandbox, Ellis Burks had just stepped from the dugout to bid the throng a graceful farewell as he approached retirement. And the rousing ovation for Burks hardly had subsided when the first pitch in the bottom of the eighth from Yankee mopup man Brad Halsey rocketed toward David Roberts's chin, renewing a familiar rite for the Sox and Yankees: a benches-clearing incident.
Another meeting of the ancient rivals, another beanball in Beantown.
"When you play anybody 19 times, bad things happen, especially with a rivalry like this," said Doug Mientkiewicz, whose third-inning brush at first base with Kenny Lofton triggered the latest tensions. "Emotions run high and usually nothing good comes out of it."
But a few good things came of the game for the Sox, who kept alive their faint hopes of overtaking the division-leading Yankees, got closer to clinching the wild card, and prepared to depart for hurricane-weary Tampa Bay more confident than ever in Schilling as a big-game pitcher.
"No doubt about it," center fielder Johnny Damon said when asked if Schilling should be Boston's Game 1 starter in the postseason. "He should be. He's our best pitcher."
While no punches were thrown amid the latest rancor between the teams, the Sox scored a significant moral victory by roughing up the Yankees for a second straight game nearly as soundly as the Steinbrenner Nine spanked the Sox the previous weekend in the Bronx. The Sox, in thrashing the Bombers, 12-5, Saturday and thumping them yesterday, also showed signs of snapping out of a 6-7 run down the stretch.
"I don't know if it was about sending a message [to the Yankees]," Roberts said. "It was just a matter of sending a message to ourselves that we can play good baseball again."
Yet after finishing their home schedule at 55-26, second-best in the majors to the Yankees (54-24), the Sox still had yet to foreclose winning the division, as unfathomable as the prospect may be.
"There's still seven games left and we're 3 1/2 out," Kevin Millar said. "They can go [0-6] and we can go 7-0. As long as there are that many games left, there's a race."
Schilling, who improved to 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA, was more realistic.
"It's out of our hands," he said. "We had our chances. Every chance we had, they beat us back. It's not up to us now. We've got to take care of our games and see what happens with theirs."
Schilling took care of his game, allowing only a two-run, ground-ball single up the middle to Jorge Posada after he uncharacteristically walked the bases loaded in the fourth inning. Schilling was so enraged for the lapse of control and his inability to knock down Posada's grounder that he spiked the ball in the dirt by first base after the final batter of the inning was retired.
"There's just no excuse for a situation like that to come up," Schilling said, beating himself up, as always, over the slightest slip of effectiveness. "You've got to make better pitches and at least make the at-bats competitive."
Thanks to the Sox' offense, Schilling was sitting on a 7-0 lead during his brief lapse. The Sox annihilated Kevin Brown in his first start since he fractured his left hand punching a clubhouse wall after his last outing Sept. 3, routing him after he retired only two batters in the first inning. After the Sox scored four runs against Brown, they tagged Esteban Loaiza for seven more (six earned), as every starter but Mientkiewicz either scored a run or knocked one in.
David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon each drove in two runs, and Bill Mueller launched a solo homer.
"Our offense took a lot of suspense out of the game," Schilling said. "This was a good finish to the homestand."
There also was the craziness, which began when Lofton nudged Mientkiewicz in the back crossing the bag after Lofton grounded out to end the third. The two exchanged unpleasantries as peacekeepers stepped between them.
"I guess Kenny loves giving Mientkiewicz an elbow, " Damon said. "That's about the gist of it. But we've played them too much. Both teams are mentally fried."
The Sox responded to the Lofton incident in the eighth when Pedro Astacio fired a 2-0 fastball behind Lofton, prompting Lofton to briefly lurch toward the mound and voice his displeasure. After both benches were warned by plate ump Jim Wolf, Astacio was ejected by Tim McClelland, the first-base ump and crew chief.
Sox manager Terry Francona protested.
"I was a little surprised by the manner they did it," Francona said. "I've never seen a first-base umpire do it before."
Yankees manager Joe Torre voiced concern about the Sox waiting until they had replaced many of their starters before Astacio fired his provocative pitch.
"I hope it was just a coincidence that when they threw behind Kenny, it happened at the same time that most of their regulars came out of their lineup," Torre said.
In any case, Halsey wasted little time responding in the bottom of the inning with his pitch to Roberts. While Roberts went no farther than Lofton toward the mound, the benches and bullpens briefly emptied. Once order was quickly restored, Halsey and Torre were ejected.
"The pitcher has a job to do, but when he's missing up around my shoulders, that got me a little upset because I have my livelihood to worry about," Roberts said. "I want to be around for the postseason. I don't want to take any chances on hurting this ball club in any way. He's a guy who I don't think is going to be around in the postseason, so I have a lot more to lose than he does."
Stay tuned. The Sox and Yankees could meet again in October.