CHICAGO -- John Blake, the Red Sox media relations director, looked up from his laptop computer at the end of the fifth inning, right after Julian Tavarez had struck out the side for the first time this season, and casually announced to those within earshot, "Yankees lose."
As if the Red Sox needed anything else to go their way on a day they completed a historic four-game sweep of the White Sox, 11-1, to take a 7 1/2-game lead over the Bombers with five weeks and 31 games to play.
Even before the Sox won -- scoring double-digit runs in four straight games for the first time since 1950 -- and the Yankees lost in Detroit yesterday, Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus, simulating the rest of the season a million times, had the Red Sox making it to the playoffs 99.6 percent of the time, with their chances of winning the division at 95.8 percent. Those numbers only got better on the eve of what had once loomed as a showdown series starting tomorrow night in the Bronx, with the Yankees still having to play the Tigers again tonight.
Feel good to have that kind of lead -- not to mention those odds -- heading into Yankee Stadium?
"It feels better playing the way we're playing," said Mike Lowell, who had 10 hits in the series and knocked in seven runs. "We're playing really well. We're getting great pitching performances, we're swinging the bats really well, and playing good defense. That combination, with our talent, is tough to beat . . . If we play this way in New York, we'll be fine."
The Sox, to a man, shied away from talking about the possibility of putting away the Yankees this week.
"Got to keep playing," said David Ortiz, whose two-run homer after Dustin Pedroia's two-run single off Javier Vazquez in the fifth broke open a 1-1 game. "We've got a month still, right? Anything can happen."
Maybe it is too early to be talking about a magic number -- at the moment it's 25, meaning any combination of Sox wins and Yankee losses totaling 25, and Boston is a division winner for the first time since 1995. But consider the improbable ways in which the Red Sox rolled over Chicago yesterday, while becoming just the fourth team since 1900 to score 10 or more runs four straight times in a series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
J.D. Drew homered for the first time in more than two months (51 games and 166 at-bats). Newcomer Bobby Kielty, filling in for sore-backed Manny Ramírez, started a rally with a bunt, then homered for the first time in almost a year. Ortiz hit his third first-pitch home run in three days. And Tavarez made the Sox look brilliant for giving him the start originally scheduled to go to Jon Lester.
The Red Sox outscored the White Sox in the series, 46-7, almost matching the 46-10 beating the Bears laid on the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Does that warrant a "Wow?"
"I don't know if I'm a big 'Wow' guy," manager Terry Francona said. "Maybe at the end of the year. But I'll tell you what, we did a good job. It's gratifying. Fourth game [of a series]? Not an easy one to win."
The Sox completed their first four-game sweep here since Aug. 3-5, 1968, at old Comiskey Park, when Hawk Harrelson was wearing Nehru jackets and batting cleanup for Boston, instead of biting his tongue and broadcasting for the bad-beyond-belief White Sox.
"I think if you tried," Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said, "you can't be playing on the level we are."
Guillen wasn't exactly humbled by the outcome, however, cheekily bringing up the White Sox' three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the 2005 Division Series on their way to winning the World Series. "They swept us this time," he said. "I swept them in the big one. That's when it counts."
When this trip began, the Sox were four games ahead of the Bombers, matching the narrowest lead they've held over the Yankees since April 24. By taking six of seven from the Devil Rays and White Sox, with Jonathan Papelbon striking out the side to end yesterday's game, the Sox have tacked on 3 1/2 games, giving them their biggest bulge since Aug. 2, when they led by eight.
Tavarez made a spot start Aug. 19 -- his first in 18 days -- to allow Francona to line up his rotation the way he wanted, and gave up just two hits in six innings to the Angels in a 3-1 loss. Given the start yesterday because the Sox preferred to send Lester down in order to have a second lefty (Javier Lopez) in the bullpen, Tavarez gave up a solo home run in the second inning to Jermaine Dye, matching the home run Drew hit off Vazquez in the top of the inning, but gave up just one more hit and did not allow another runner beyond first base in his six innings of work.
"He has the rare ability to do stuff like that," Francona said. "There are not many guys who can sit in the bullpen for a long time, then give you a chance for six innings. I'm proud of him. He should be proud of himself."
Kielty followed his four-RBI performance Saturday by dropping a bunt that curled inside the third base line for a hit with one out in the fifth. Coco Crisp followed with a base hit, and though Julio Lugo then forced Crisp, Lugo subsequently stole second and scored when Pedroia lined a full-count pitch to center for two runs. Ortiz hit Vazquez's next offering into the center-field seats, and it was 5-1.
Drew walked to open the sixth and two outs later, Kielty, hitting from the left side, slugged his first home run since last Sept. 19, when he was with Oakland, and a four-run eighth, fueled by two White Sox errors, had the Sox making history while leaving the White Sox bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.
The confusion extended to at least one member of Chicago's electronic media, who addressed Francona as "Tony."
Francona answered the question, then pushed away from his desk. "Tony's done," he announced.
But are the Yankees?
"They're still in it," Lowell said, in an indirect allusion to the wild card. "If you can guarantee me that winning the division gets you to the World Series, I want to win the division. I want to be the team that gets to the playoffs and is playing hot."