For the better part of four hours, it was a raucous house party.
Then it turned into Black Friday.
Five runs ahead and six outs away from taking a decisive step to their first division title in a dozen years, the Red Sox were brought to their knees by a hail of Yankee hits in a six-run eighth inning that leveled Hideki Okajima, and most shocking of all, closer Jonathan Papelbon, in an 8-7 loss that seemingly turned in a New York minute.
Rather than having to work on their concession speeches, the Yankees sent an unmistakable message that even if they don't overtake the Sox in the American League East, they will be a force to be reckoned with if they are still playing in October. With the regular season due to end two weeks from tomorrow, the Yankees drew to within 4 1/2 games of the Sox in the AL East, while remaining 3 1/2 games ahead of Tigers in the wild-card race.
"Every loss right now is crushing," said Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek, "but we've got to pull ourselves together and go back out there and be ready to play tomorrow."
Down, 7-2, to start the eighth, the Yankees first unloaded on Okajima, with Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano hitting consecutive home runs, neither one cheap. Giambi's cleared the Yankees' bullpen, Cano the wall in dead center field. Okajima then walked Melky Cabrera and gave up a double scorched into the left-center-field gap by Johnny Damon, with four hits an irritant to his former mates all night.
"Uncharacteristically, everything was over the middle of the plate," Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Elevated and he couldn't get out of the middle. They squared it up in a hurry."
It was 11:09 p.m. when Francona summoned Papelbon, as close to a sure thing in the AL this season, to face Derek Jeter. The Yankees' captain, who made an error in the first inning and struck out with the bases loaded to end the sixth, flared Papelbon's first pitch into right field for a single, scoring Cabrera to make it 7-5 and sending Damon to third. Bobby Abreu took a strike, then lined Papelbon's next pitch off the wall in center, scoring Damon and Jeter to tie the score. Abreu moved up to third when Dustin Pedroia's relay to the plate bounced away from Varitek.
Then it was Alex Rodriguez's turn to undress Papelbon. The consensus MVP took a strike, then ripped a 96-mile-per-hour fastball into center for the hit that made it 8-7. A sellout crowd of 36,590, which had spent much of the long evening in high spirits, suddenly had about as much reason to celebrate as Bill Belichick.
Papelbon finally got out of it, but as he walked off the mound, he cursed violently into his glove, knowing that if he had held service, the team's first division title since 1995 was practically a foregone conclusion. In one inning, the Yankees collected more hits against Papelbon (3) than he had allowed since Aug. 1. He had retired 31 of the last 34 batters he faced, and had not allowed an earned run in his last 15 2/3 innings (16 appearances). It was also the first time Papelbon has allowed three straight hits in his career.
Those were the last words Papelbon was seen uttering last night. He vacated the clubhouse before anyone could pose a question.
"We never gave up on the fact that we could win," Yankees manager Joe Torre said after a game that lasted 4 hours 43 minutes, just two minutes short of the record 4:45 for nine innings these teams played here Aug. 18, 2006. "In this ballpark, if you put up any kind of little run together, you have a chance to score some runs."
The Sox put the tying run on base against reliever Luis Vizcaino in the bottom of the eighth when Mike Lowell reached on a third-strike passed ball by Jorge Posada, but pinch runner Coco Crisp, a scratch from the starting lineup because of a sore left hip, was cut down attempting to steal with J.D. Drew at the plate.
They did it again in the ninth when Drew led off against Mariano Rivera with a ground single under the glove of second baseman Cano. But Rivera whiffed Varitek, retired Bobby Kielty on a fly to center, then struck out Jacoby Ellsbury on three pitches, the last on a half swing, spoiling what had been a promising baptism into the rivalry for the rookie.
How shocking was it to see the game turn as quickly as it did?
"You never take that lightly, any way, any day," Varitek said. "We made some mistakes. They did a good job hitting. But I'll take our chances with the guys we had out there."
From the start, this game was messy and frequently tedious, but one tilted heavily in the Sox' favor. Ellsbury, who didn't join the club until Sept. 1 and wasn't in the starting lineup until an hour before the game, made his first appearance in the rivalry one to remember. Playing center field in place of Crisp, Ellsbury singled home Boston's first run, then blooped a single in his second at-bat and transformed a pickoff into a stolen base during Boston's three-run fourth.
The big hit in that inning was a two-run single delivered by another rookie, Pedroia, who has thrived in the white-heat atmosphere of a rivalry that last night uncharacteristically was overshadowed - at least until the first pitch - by the Patriots' video scandal. Pedroia came into the game batting .356 against the Bombers, an average eclipsed by just two players: Lowell, who returned to the lineup after missing a game with intestinal distress, and Manny Ramírez, who remained inactive despite a third straight day of batting practice.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was more survivor than symphony conductor, pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the first and a first-and-third, no-out quandary in the fourth. Matsuzaka, who had won just one of his previous six starts (four losses and a no-decision), handed over another mess to Mike Timlin in the sixth, when Posada doubled and the Japanese righthander walked Hideki Matsui, who had tripled in New York's first run in the fourth, and Cabrera to load the bases with two out. With Matsuzaka at 120 pitches, in came Timlin. He gave up a chopped single over the mound to Damon to make it 5-2 and bring Jeter to the plate, but the Yankees' captain swung and missed at a full-count splitter to end the threat.
Matsuzaka gave up just four hits and struck out seven, but his five walks and a hit batsman (he plunked A-Rod in the thigh to load the bases in the first) kept him in constant peril. But he looked in great position to win, as the Sox ran up Andy Pettitte's pitch count to a staggering 101 in just four innings, by which time they had a 5-1 lead. The Yankees, meanwhile, were victims of their own sloppiness, errors by Jeter and Giambi helping the Sox to open their big lead.
Another bit of Yankee sloppiness helped the Sox extend the lead to 6-2 in the bottom of the sixth. Right fielder Abreu had Ortiz doubled off first on Lowell's liner to right, but Giambi could not hang onto his throw from the outfield. No error was assessed, but it kept the rally alive. Kevin Youkilis hit a soft single to center to score Lugo, who had singled, taken second on an infield out, and stolen third.
Torre, who had replaced Pettitte with Jose Veras after the fourth, made another pitching change, bringing in lefthander Sean Henn to face Drew. The Sox rightfielder, who had surprised onlookers by throwing his bat and helmet after striking out with two on to end the fourth, lined a single to right, scoring Ortiz to make it 7-2.
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.