Embedded New York reporters, in number and in tone, have overtaken postgame press conferences in Fenway Park's red brick interview room. When the 35,476 inside the yard rose and roared in solidarity in the bottom of the sixth inning last night, with David Ortiz about to be announced, they delivered an ovation equal to, if not greater than, anything that had cascaded through the stands to that point.
They cheered not for their MVP hopeful, but for an invisible hand behind the rickety olive board in left field, where ''NYY 7, BAL 6" suddenly read ''BAL 8, NYY 7." That game would end 17-9, Baltimore. Coupled with the Sox' split of yesterday's doubleheader -- a 3-1 afternoon win and a disheartening 7-5 nightcap loss -- Baltimore's first win in 10 games left the Sox and Yankees even again. With five games to play.
Only two more days must pass before they finally get to settle this, properly, it seems, face to face.
''We know it's going to come down to this weekend," Johnny Damon ventured. ''It's the master plan. God's way. Yankees-Red Sox."
This, however, was an opportunity lost, which Damon acknowledged, calling yesterday ''very disappointing."
The Sox began the day half a game behind in the AL East but made up that ground in a mere 2 hours 23 minutes. Tim Wakefield spun seven calm innings, the depth and trap-door break on his knuckleball limiting Toronto to three hits, all singles. The Sox scored in the first inning for the fourth consecutive game, all wins. They led 2-0 after four batters -- a Damon single, Edgar Renteria double, David Ortiz RBI ground out, and a Manny Ramirez RBI single.
Toronto scored its lone run off Wakefield -- unearned, at that -- in the fifth. Wakefield pitched scoreless sixth and seventh innings, leaving Francona with a difficult decision. Bring back Wakefield, who was sitting on 108 pitches? Or turn to 24-year-old rookie Jonathan Papelbon, preserving Wakefield's strength -- he's thrown a career-high 220 1/3 innings -- to come back Saturday on three days' rest against the Yankees?
''I talked to him between innings," Francona said. ''That's a tough one for me. Under ordinary circumstances, we could have sent him back out and he would have been fine. I don't think these are ordinary circumstances.
''We have guys out there [in the bullpen] who should get them out. And they did."
Papelbon pitched a scoreless eighth, though it was by no means easy -- he allowed a leadoff walk and a one-out single. With runners on the corners and one out, he popped up Vernon Wells in foul territory, then threw a fastball by Shea Hillenbrand for Strike 2 and a slider by Hillenbrand (seven strikeouts yesterday) for Strike 3.
Papelbon remained unscored upon in seven of his eight September appearances and lowered to 1.64 his ERA in 11 innings the season's final month. Mike Timlin allowed a two-out single in the ninth before finishing the Jays for his 12th save and 79th appearance of the season, one shy of Greg Harris's club record (1993).
Wakefield, of course, earned the win, improving to 16-11 while lowering his ERA from 4.09 to 3.96, best among Sox starters. Wakefield has pitched seven or more innings in six consecutive starts. He's 8-2 in his last 12 starts and 2-1 in five September starts with a 1.99 ERA. That's the stuff of an ace.
''He is right now," Damon said prior to Game 2. ''We have another guy going tonight [Curt Schilling] who wants that ace title back."
But, by day's end, Schilling would blame himself for the Sox blowing three-run leads -- 3-0 after three innings and 5-2 after four.
''We've got a winnable game sitting there with the chance to be in first place all alone with me on the mound, and in my mind that's a lock," Schilling said. ''And it hasn't been."
Schilling went 6 1/3 innings, allowing five runs on 10 hits, striking out eight, walking one, and surrendering one home run. The homer -- Greg Zaun's 11th of the season -- came with two outs in the fourth. Jason Varitek set up outside and Schilling came inside with a 93-mile-per-hour fastball, closing a 3-0 Sox lead to 3-2.
Succinctly, Schilling said, ''My fastball command has been just horse [crap]."
The Sox plated two in the bottom of that inning, the fourth, pounding 24-year-old rookie lefthander Gustavo Chacin (3 2/3 innings, 10 hits, 5 runs).
The Sox went 9 for their last 13 against Chacin, establishing a 5-2 lead. Renteria -- who had as many extra-base hits yesterday (three) as he had in the previous 26 days -- cranked three hits off Chacin by himself.
But a parade of five relievers held the Sox scoreless for 5 1/3 innings. Schilling allowed two more runs in the fifth, worked a scoreless sixth, then came back out for the seventh. He couldn't finish what he began.
Aaron Hill produced a leadoff single and Frank Catalanotto singled with one out, bringing up Vernon Wells. Wells, with the count full, hammered a fastball up the middle, tying the proceedings at 5-5 and ending Schilling's night after 115 pitches.
Is it too much to ask of him to be the ace he once was, what with the trauma his ankle has endured?
''No," he said. ''I'm healthy. That's the problem. I can't point at anything other than I'm pitching like crap."
We remind you: Schilling receives the ball Sunday, in the season finale, when all of this could still be tied.
''As frustrated as I am, we're still there," he said. ''I can still make a difference in a positive way, and I have to hold on to that."
His bullpen couldn't hold the tie. Papelbon evidently wasn't available. So Francona went to Mike Myers (one batter, one walk), then Chad Bradford. Bradford pitched a brilliant seventh, working out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam by fanning Hillenbrand and retiring Eric Hinske.
The whiff, by the way, was Hillenbrand's sixth in as many at-bats. But Bradford came back for the eighth and left with runners in scoring position and one out. That called for a strikeout situation, and since Matt Mantei is home in Michigan rehabbing his ankle, that most recent player asked to fulfill that role trotted out of the bullpen.
Craig Hansen didn't allow any runs that will show up on his ERA, just a decisive sacrifice fly. Asked if he was told he might pitch in such a situation, Hansen said, ''There was nothing said. I just knew everybody had to be on call in any situation."
Such is the difficult of a doubleheader, isn't it?
''Yeah," Terry Francona said, realizing that he needed say no more. ''Yeah."