boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

This game of chances isn't over

''Tomorrow. Pack for three day trip."

That's the sign on the eraserboard in the Red Sox clubhouse. It presupposes the Red Sox will become the American League wild-card team and thus will open the ALDS Tuesday night in Chicago.

The division title is gone. The Yankees wrapped it up yesterday with an 8-4 victory. Even if the Red Sox defeat the Yankees today, and thus finish with an identical 95-67 record, the Yankees would remain division champs by virtue of a 10-9 season series advantage.

It is all fair and square, and, frankly, quite just. The Yankees have won 16 of their last 20 games. That's class. That's clutch. And you can be sure that if the Yankees couldn't celebrate this sweet triumph at home, there is no better No. 2 place for them to spray the bubbly than the cramped visitors clubhouse in Fenway Park.

''They deserve it," said Sox manager Terry Francona. ''They can be subdued. They can be wild. They have earned that right. My concern now is that we have enough energy for tomorrow's game."

There will be at least one more game here this season. At least. The Red Sox still have a magic number of 1 to clinch the wild-card berth, and in case they don't reach their goal by defeating Jaret Wright and the Yankees, or the White Sox don't knock off the Indians for a third time in succession, there will be one more chance to get it done by defeating the Indians tomorrow in a playoff game at the Sox' home park. I mean, really. How many chances can these guys rightfully ask for?

Not that anyone wants to mess around with a playoff game. ''In one game, anything can happen," said David Ortiz. ''Remember that one game we had to make up against the White Sox? There was that guy we had never faced before and he threw the heck out of the ball." That guy happened to be Brandon McCarthy, and guess who is pitching for the White Sox against the Tribe in the big game today?

That's just one more little log on the conversational fire in this final week of rather intriguing baseball.

''This has been an unbelievable week for baseball," said Francona. ''When the Yankees are out there celebrating and we have a day where we have our whole season in front of us. It's the most unique thing you will see. What are the odds of watching the Yankees celebrate, and we're coming into the clubhouse as excited as you can be about playing the game tomorrow?"

And what about the fact that Game No. 162, a game in which the Red Sox can decide their own fate, will be in the hands of Mr. Bloody Sock himself? Curt Schilling can salvage a very trying season with a big performance today. Really. This stuff is impossible to make up.

It's drama, all right, but not the highest possible drama, since the Red Sox do have the safety net of the playoff game if things don't fall their way today.

''Two chances is better than one, right?" said Bill Mueller. ''But I'd rather focus on the main goal, which is to win. That's what's ingrained in you. That's what you go with."

Here's one thing you must accept. You must accept that, as nice and satisfying as winning their first division championship since 1995 would have been, it's really not all that important. Getting in is what matters. And if you get in, it won't matter where the games are played if you don't pitch well. That's the lesson of 2002, 2003, and 2004, when the champion was a wild-card team.

''I personally am not a 'title' guy," Mueller said. ''I always say that the idea is to get into the playoffs any way you can, regardless of the title, because once you get in, anything can happen. Just get there. That's how I've always thought about it."

The Yankees left the ballpark not knowing who their opponent would be, or whether or not they will be on the road come Tuesday, but they have the satisfaction Mueller was talking about. They're in, and already manager Joe Torre has begun maneuvering for the playoffs by identifying Wright as his starting pitcher today, as opposed to Mike Mussina, who has a cranky right elbow and who was brutal in his last start.

No late-game heroics were needed yesterday. The Yankees hammered Tim Wakefield for three home runs, grabbing leads of 3-0 and 7-2 in what was essentially cruise-control gear. Randy Johnson was good, not great, but he was good enough.

''We had our chances," said Francona. ''We had his pitch count up early, but you don't know how many chances you'll get against him."

''He didn't throw 97, 98, the way he did last time we saw him," said Mueller. ''But he was still very effective."

''I think," said Ortiz, ''that against us he is more concerned with location than speed. He knows we're good fastball hitters."

He was reminded of that fact when Manny Ramirez turned on an inside fastball in the first inning and shot one far over the screen. That two-run homer made it 3-2, but Wakefield gave the runs right back in the second and the Red Sox were never seriously in the game again.

People had some yuks at the Big Unit's expense at times this season, but in the end he gave the Yankees what they needed, when they needed it. And he was 5-0 against the Red Sox. That alone gives him an outside shot at being included in The Boss's will.

It has not been a good week for the Red Sox, but it could have been a lot worse had it not been a horrible week for the Indians, who have now lost five of their last six. If the Red Sox do make it into the tournament, fans might consider making a donation to the signature charity of the Indians. Absent Cleveland's help, the Red Sox already would be thinking about cruises and tee times.

But it's all in the books now, and the only thing that matters now is Game 162. Until Game 163, anyway. And having Schilling taking the ball sure adds a bit of spice to the plot. At best this season, he has been a solid starter. But solid is a long way from great, and even in that ''solid" context he has been very inconsistent. If he brings the same stuff and same location to the mound today he did against Toronto Tuesday night, let's just say there will be a whole lot of attention focused on that game in Cleveland.

But we are talking about Curt Schilling, the High Priest of Mound Drama. ''When Schill takes to the mound," said Francona, ''it's with the mentality that this is the biggest game of his career. He always finds a reason to get up for the game. I don't think he'll need much to get up for this one."

OK, fine. But in this case, there's always tomorrow, and that's a fact.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives