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Red Sox 11, A's 6

Closing encounter

Red Sox advance toward division title with victory

You don't need Matt Noyes after this steamy night in Fenway to tell you what lies ahead. The forecast calls for champagne showers - perhaps as soon as tonight, with the probability of a drenching growing stronger every day between now and Sunday.

But you might want to check with a travel agent regarding flights to Anaheim, Calif., next weekend, if you are entertaining the prospect of following the Red Sox through the first round of the American League playoffs.

The immediate future came into focus for the Sox with last night's 11-6 win over the Oakland Athletics. Their magic number to clinch the AL East and win their first division title since 1995 is down to 2 - any combination of Sox wins and Yankee losses totaling that number and the Sox will have captured the division.

And with the Angels being routed by Texas, the last-place Rangers completing a three-game sweep, the Sox are now virtually certain of meeting the Angels in the first round of the playoffs. The Angels are on the verge of being eliminated from the race for best record in the league; if that distinction falls to either the Indians or Red Sox, the Angels will play the Sox in the first round, because the Indians will play the AL East wild-card entry.

"Down in Tampa we didn't want to get too far ahead of ourselves," said reliever Mike Timlin, who emerged with the win after the Sox broke a 5-all tie by scoring six runs against an Oakland bullpen that ran out a series of who dats after the Sox knocked around starter Joe Blanton for 11 hits in five innings. "We were glad we got the playoff berth, but we didn't want to overdo it. I'm sure we'll let it out a little bit. [A celebration] kind of plans itself."

It appears the Sox will open at Fenway Park against the Angels Wednesday or Thursday; Game 3 and Game 4 (if necessary) in the best-of-five series would be played Sunday and Monday in Anaheim.

"You figure we've got to split our last four games," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who drove in five runs to blow by Butch Hobson for most RBIs by a Sox third baseman, Lowell now with 116 to Hobson's previous club record of 112 in 1977. "We feel pretty good about that, especially with Josh [Beckett] going tomorrow. We're all excited about it. We want to do it.

"We definitely still have something to play for the last four games."

Manny Ramírez, meanwhile, demonstrated for the second straight night that he can miss 24 games without putting a hitch in his swing. Ramírez had three singles and a walk, scoring twice, before giving way to rookie Brandon Moss, who came in as a pinch runner, scored on Lowell's two-run single in the sixth, then singled in a run (his first big league RBI) and eventually scored on a wild pitch in the seventh.

"It's like in spring training," manager Terry Francona said, referring to that other time of year when Ramírez has been known to miss a day or two. "The first few days of spring training, you'll never see him pull a ball. He's such a smart hitter and disciplined hitter, he's going to get his at-bats and get himself in a position where all of a sudden they start throwing pitches, he's going to start launching them."

Combine their production out of the No. 2 hole with that of leadoff man Dustin Pedroia, who gave his candidacy for Rookie of the Year a late push with a home run, two doubles, a walk, and four runs, and the top two places in the Sox' order accounted for eight runs and seven hits.

"I think Manny's falling in love with hitting second," said David Ortiz, who in the unaccustomed position of hitting behind Ramírez had a walk, single, and double while Ramírez was still in the game, then hit his 50th double of the season, off the Monster in left-center, to become the sixth Sox player ever to hit 50 doubles in a season.

Was he falling in love with hitting after Ramírez? "No, not at all," said Ortiz, who has had a tremendous finishing kick, batting .386 (27 for 70) with 9 doubles, 7 home runs, 20 RBIs, and 16 walks in his last 19 games, all while dealing with knee and shoulder issues.

Asked if his second half was more Ortiz-like than his first, when his numbers were down, Ortiz said: "In this game, it's never enough. I'm happy with my season, but people say I've been struggling. Who knows, you put three guys in our lineup with my numbers, and there might be 20 games between us and the Yankees."

Jon Lester struck out nine in the first 4 1/3 innings, but gave up a three-run home run to Donnie Murphy in the fourth and a solo shot to Mike Piazza in the fifth in what might be his final appearance of the season. Lester figures to be a long shot to make the postseason roster, especially since the club has not spoken to him about possibly coming out of the bullpen.

Five Sox relievers got their exercise last night, including Eric Gagné, who gave up a couple of hits in the eighth and had Manny Delcarmen suddenly up and warming, but recovered to strike out Nick Swisher and Piazza on nasty curveballs.

"As long as he stays with what makes him good," Francona said, "he'll be just fine."

That statement could be extended, of course, to the rest of the Sox clubhouse.

"Right now I think we're starting to hit our stride," said closer Jonathan Papelbon, who this week made his debut on the cover of Sports Illustrated and hopes to get a couple more tuneups before the playoffs start. "Manny and Youks [Kevin Youkilis] are coming back, and we're starting to click on all cylinders."

Overcome by the clichés? Not to worry. Francona declined to talk about the Sox winning the division last night, but promised reporters he'd be "very thoughtful, very eloquent" when they do.

Tape recorders will be mandatory.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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