ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The champagne flowed yesterday in Cleveland, where the Indians don't win a big game without Trot Nixon sticking a whipped cream pie in somebody's face. And there wasn't a dry shirt in Anaheim, where the Angels couldn't have a better party planner than Orlando Cabrera, another alumnus of Boston's 2004 World Series champions.
With a week left in the regular season, there remains only one race in the American League, after the Indians and the Angels won division titles yesterday, the Indians wasting no time in hoisting the division flag to the top of the center-field scoreboard in Jacobs Field after beating Oakland, the Angels taking their dismissal of the Seattle Mariners a tad more in stride.
The only settling left to be done is in the East, where the Red Sox, who have clinched a postseason berth, and Yankees go down to the wire with the division title yet unclaimed. Two years ago, when the issue wasn't resolved until the teams went head to head on the season's final weekend, fans in Fenway Park were treated to the weird spectacle of watching the Bombers celebrate winning the division on a Saturday, then watching the Sox stampede to the mound the next day after cinching the wild-card spot.
The difference this season is that the Sox are certain of at least a wild-card reservation and the Yankees are all but assured of a spot, leading the Tigers by 5 1/2 games with seven to play, the Tigers six.
All that is left to decide is where the place cards go at the postseason dinner table. The Sox, losing, 5-4, to the Devil Rays yesterday, had their division lead sliced to 1 1/2 games by the Yankees, 7-5 winners over the Blue Jays. The Sox also were leapfrogged by the Indians in the competition for best overall record in the league, which will determine home-field advantage and first-round matchups.
"Our goal is to win every series," said Alex Cora, who subbed for rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia and hit his first home run since the end of April. "We didn't get the job done in Toronto, then came here and took two out of three. Now we go home with the chance to win two more series. If we do that, we'll be in good position to win the division.
"Turn the page, like we always do, enjoy the offday, hang out, get used to the weather, whatever it is, and come out and play."
The Sox returned home last night to finish the season at Fenway Park with two games against Oakland beginning tomorrow night, then four against the Twins. The Yankees, meanwhile, have a makeup game today in the Bronx against the Blue Jays, then finish on the road with three games against the Devil Rays and three against the Orioles. Both teams have played the Bombers tough; the Yanks are 8-7 against the Devil Rays, 7-8 against the Orioles, though they beat Baltimore in three straight games earlier this month.
You take your drama where you can get it, and the Sox could have put a serious squeeze on the Yankees by completing a sweep of the Devil Rays. Instead, Tampa Bay accomplished something it never had done in its brief history in its roof-covered playground, pinning a defeat on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
"Couldn't have come at a worse time," said Wakefield, who has pitched here before - four times - in games the Sox have lost, but did not get the decision in those defeats, which explained his 9-0 record here entering the game. He left trailing, 4-0, after five innings, having given up a two-run home run to Rookie of the Year candidate Delmon Young in the second inning, a solo run in the fourth, when Young doubled and scored on a single by Jonny Gomes, and another run in the fifth, when Akinori Iwamura walked, stole second, and scored on Jorge Velandia's base hit.
Wakefield whiffed Young with the bases loaded to end the fifth, but the Sox could not overcome the head start. They scored three times in the sixth off Rays starter Edwin Jackson, but reliever Jon Switzer shattered Eric Hinske's bat on a comebacker that resulted in an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded. Two singles and a safety squeeze bunt by Josh Wilson produced another run in the home sixth against the nigh-forgotten Julian Tavarez, so the Sox still trailed by a run when Cora homered to lead off the eighth, his first in 174 at-bats.
The game ended with a reprise of the Jason Varitek-Al Reyes matchup from the night before, in which Varitek hit a tying home run in the ninth. Julio Lugo, who had followed with a winning two-run home run off Reyes, was left on deck as Varitek popped to third to end the game.
"Made one mistake, really, to Delmon Young," said Wakefield, now 16-12 and winless in four decisions since skipping a start when his back stiffened. "I felt fine today."
The Devil Rays, for a change, were the ones feeling better when it was over.
"You're always looking for that definitive sign of progress, there it is," joked Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "Beating Wakefield at the 'Pit' is a definitive sign of progress."
But, someone protested, even the Farmers' Almanac forecasts a Wakefield win when he pitches here.
"They're going to have to rewrite it now, if that's ever occurred," Maddon said. "The edited edition."