ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The wackiest bunch of barnstormers in 21st century baseball, the renegade Red Sox last night played their way into the postseason promised land amid the adulation of a traveling jamboree of fans, none more striking than a flock of bearded, white-robed disciples.
That's right, Johnny Damon's disciples. The day after Pedro Martinez's pal, 28-inch-tall actor Nelson De La Rosa, paid a circus-like visit to Fenway Park, Damon's disciples gathered on the mount in the left-field bleachers at Tropicana Field, extolling their center fielder/spiritual leader and his diamond mates.
The faithful watched the Sox clinch their second straight postseason spot -- at least the wild card, though they remain alive for the division title -- with a 7-3 triumph over the Devil Rays before 17,602 at Tropicana Field and flashed a patchwork sign that mystically inquired, "What would Johnny do?"
He would party, of course. And so would the Sox after they reached a happy waystation in their quest for a world championship -- a pursuit that once seemed doomed during a long run of midsummer mediocrity.
"This is an amazing feeling," said Damon, who hit a three-run homer to start the party. "This could be a special year. We felt like last year's team was the best around and we feel like this team is better. Hopefully, we can bring a championship to Boston."
Even as the Sox doused each other with suds and all but joined Damon's disciples -- "We love you, J.D.," one player said as he baptized Damon with beer -- they recognized they have miles to go before they rest. The American League East remains in play, after all. And there's the highly unsettled matter of which team they will face when the playoffs begin a week from today.
"It's been a long strange trip, but we're here," general manager Theo Epstein said. "This is step one, but you have to get here to win the World Series. Two years in a row feels pretty sweet. Now it's time to go to work."
But they partied nonetheless, even if the champagne gala fell far short of the crazy celebration they launched last year at Fenway Park, extending the frothy festivities from the field to the Baseball Tavern. For a few of the newcomers, including Terry Francona as a manager, it was their first invitation to October baseball. No one has weathered the storm of mighty expectations in New England more than Francona, who has guided the team through a tumult of trades and controversies.
"I said a long time ago that it would be sweeter because of what we went through, and it's very sweet," he said, soaked to the skin in bubbly. "But this is the beginning and I think [the players] feel that way, too."
One of the clinchers-in-chief was Bronson Arroyo, the rising star from the back of the rotation, who survived an early dustup to improve to 10-9 by limiting the Rays to two runs over 6 1/3 innings before a posse of bullpen men, including finisher Keith Foulke, did the rest. Arroyo was struck by the moderation of the celebration.
"Everything is so calm compared to last year when it was berserk at Fenway," Arroyo said. "We've got business to finish. Hopefully, there are a couple of more milestones to get to."
Damon's disciples had plenty else to applaud as Manny Ramirez unleashed a gargantuan 458-foot two-run homer, and Jason Varitek and David McCarty added solo shots to help seal the victory.
"I think this is the year," Ramirez said. "But we haven't accomplished anything yet. We're going to take it to the next level and see what happens."
The postgame festivities left no player unsplashed. From the superstars to the bench guys, the unity of the team was strikingly evident.
"The camaraderie is what pulled us through a lot of adversity," Foulke said, "and it's going to take us to the promised land."
The Devil Rays nearly delayed the celebration by throwing 20-year-old rookie sensation Scott Kazmir at the Sox. Good thing for Francona's crew that baseball has an unwritten code that Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella decided to live by, regardless of the consequences.
By all indications, Piniella deemed it so essential that the Sox pay for Arroyo hitting two batters with pitches -- and knocking one of them, Aubrey Huff, out of the game. Kazmir wasted little time retaliating.
The thing was, Kazmir -- who held the Sox scoreless on three hits over six innings the last time he faced them Sept. 14 at Fenway Park -- no-hit them until his retaliatory strikes against Ramirez and Kevin Millar, fanning six and never letting the ball out of the infield over 3 1/3 innings.
The Sox had no answer for Kazmir, but after the kid plunked Ramirez on the left thigh and fired another pitch into Millar's back, triggering a nonviolent benches-clearing standoff, they no longer needed an answer. Plate umpire Bruce Dreckman took care of it by tossing the lefthander and Piniella.
"I think it woke us up a little bit," Francona said of the incident. "And [Kazmir] leaving the game certainly didn't hurt our chances to win. That kid is something special."
With Kazmir banished, the Sox scored all the runs they needed in just an inning against Kazmir's successor, Jorge Sosa.
Then it was party time. While a sudsy Curt Schilling took pleasure in recalling how far the Sox have come since a columnist used the F-word ("frauds") to desribe them during their midseason doldrums, Epstein pondered the possibilities.
"We're a very talented and confident group," Epstein said. "We feel like we can go up against anyone and hold our own. I hope we're still playing for about another five weeks."