ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Manny Ramírez, watching from the visitors' dugout, threw his hands into the air, signaling the start of Julio Lugo's stroll into Red Sox lore.
It ended with Lugo leaping into the arms of David Ortiz, who was waiting for his little buddy after Lugo's two-run home run sent the Sox into the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
The Sox, on the verge of suffering another shocking loss when Carlos Peña's three-run home run in the seventh off Javier Lopez shot the Devil Rays into the lead, instead clinched at least a wild-card spot in the October tournament by beating Tampa Bay, 8-6, before a delirious crowd of 34,666 in Tropicana Field, where geography had no impact on rooting preferences.
Detroit's 7-4 loss to the Royals, coupled with the Sox win, ensured the Sox will be playing after the regular season ends next Sunday.
With seven games to play, the Sox reclaimed the best record in the league, and maintained a 2 1/2-game lead in the American League East over the Yankees.
"For us to clinch a playoff spot in the fashion we did - we talked about it earlier with some guys, it's definitely worth celebrating," said Mike Lowell, after the team privately conducted a brief toast behind closed doors.
"You know, would we rather toast today or be where we were last year? The Tigers would rather be us, trust me. So it's definitely something to celebrate.
"We don't want to be complacent. We definitely want to win the division and we definitely want to have the best record. That doesn't mean you should diminish something along the way. We want to celebrate one, two, three, four more times."
This crowd was ready to party, even if manager Terry Francona had said before the game he was disinclined to do so, with the division title yet to be decided. But Jason Varitek spoke for the people when he led off the ninth inning with a game-tying home run off Devil Rays closer Al Reyes.
Eric Hinske followed by lashing a ground double down the line in right. After Coco Crisp popped to third, Lugo hit the first pitch he saw into the left-field stands.
"Julio might not have done what people expected, because people want more and more and more," Ortiz said, "but he can get some clutch hits. He put it together when we needed it."
Lugo had gone 204 at-bats between home runs before he connected Tuesday in Toronto. Now, in the span of five days, he has two. He has hit five home runs in the ninth inning in his career; this one will be remembered by more than his immediate family, since it not only was the first he has ever hit to decide a game, but it also put the Sox into postseason play for the 18th time in franchise history.
"Never happened, never in professional baseball," Lugo said of going long in such circumstances.
How'd it feel? "Oh man," he said, smiling broadly, "I loved it."
Varitek, too, did not loom as an obvious hitting hero. He came into the game batting just .132 (5 for 38) in his last 11 games, striking out 20 times in that span. But last night, he had three hits, and was the first to the mound after Jonathan Papelbon retired Jorge Velandia on a fly ball to Crisp in center for his 36th save.
"I think I talked a few days ago about depending on some people," Francona said. "I know I said Varitek's name. That's how you win, guys like that.
"I think he wills himself to be a winner. I really think you can do that. Certain people have the ability when the game is on the line - I hate to say it, [Yankees shortstop Derek] Jeter has done that, and 'Tek is in that same mold."
The dugout and bullpen emptied for group hugs on the mound, but as Lowell had suggested would be the case, "nothing crazy" took place on the field to commemorate what the Sox had just achieved.
The win, a drained Francona said, was satisfying "like you can't believe" after a game that was "as roller-coasterish as it gets."
Last night, it was sidewinding Lopez's turn to join the registry of lost Sox relievers, the lefthander giving up a three-run home run to Peña that put the Devil Rays ahead.
A year ago this time, Peña was hitting walkoff home runs before his family, friends, and neighbors in Fenway Park in a cameo appearance for the Sox.
The Haverhill native and former Northeastern star last night gave Sox fans another home run to remember him by, driving a full-count pitch from Lopez into the right-field seats to give the Devil Rays a 6-5 lead in the seventh.
Daisuke Matsuzaka had retired the first two batters in the inning and looked to put the finishing touches on his 15th win, a strong effort after receiving an extra three days to prepare.
Instead, Matsuzaka walked Akinori Iwamura and Velandia, both on full counts, and Francona never had the intention of letting him see Peña again, the Devil Rays' first baseman having taken him deep to open up the fourth.
In came Lopez, who the night before had whiffed a righthanded batter, Greg Norton, on three pitches, and retired Peña on a ground ball to short to close out the eighth inning.
This time, Peña put Lopez in the company of Hideki Okajima, Papelbon, Eric Gagné, and Mike Timlin, all of whom have flunked tests in the last week alone. The home run was the 42d of the season for Peña, who came down to the last week of spring training not knowing whether he had a job with the Devil Rays.
In their last 10 games, the Sox bullpen has allowed 18 earned runs in 29 innings, an ERA of 5.59. Those aren't the credentials of what many had believed was the league's best bullpen. But with one swing, Varitek saved the bullpen from another fractured finish.
For the first six innings, it was hard not to conclude that on their very best day last winter, this is what Theo Epstein must have imagined, Bill James computed, Craig Shipley and Jason McLeod scouted, and John W. Henry paid for.
Matsuzaka, mastering his new universe. J.D. Drew, hitting balls into the gap and into the seats. Lugo, leaping into the air to snare line drives and laying down bunts in the middle of a rally. The kids, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, graduating to the top of the order. Varitek, the old captain, venerable but still vital.
Ellsbury singled home Boston's first run in the third. Drew's RBI double set up Boston's two-run fourth, Varitek singling home the other run, then Drew blasted his 10th home run into the right-field seats, with Lowell aboard on a base hit, to increase the Sox' lead to 5-2 in the sixth.
Matsuzaka allowed two singles through the first three innings, abetted by Lugo's terrific catch to take away a hit from B.J. Upton to end the first.
Peña homered to open the fourth, the Devil Rays adding another run in the inning when Delmon Young singled, stole second, and scored on Norton's hit.
Peña walked to start the sixth, and was erased on a fielder's choice, Upton hustling down the line to beat the double play. Upton stole second and scored on Norton's bloop hit.
Still, Matsuzaka appeared to have the game well in hand.
"He battled so hard," Francona said. "The way the game turned, it was kind of a shame. But the way it ended, I was happy to see the smiles on everybody's faces."