It wasn't for a lack of trying. While Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were given the night off by the Yankees, 20-game winner Josh Beckett threw 99 pitches for the Red Sox, David Ortiz reached base five times (nine straight times over two nights) and hit his 34th home run, Hideki Okajima resurfaced, and Manny Ramírez extended himself to seven innings before calling it a day.
But the only occasion anyone celebrated last night at Fenway Park was Johnny Pesky's 88th birthday. Plans for a bigger affair first went Boof, then Poof, as the Minnesota Twins enacted their own version of the Volstead Act, keeping the corks in the bubbly and prohibiting the Sox from clinching their first division title in a dozen years with a 5-4 win over the Olde Towne Team.
Joe Nathan, the best closer never to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, kept Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen by inducing Dustin Pedroia to pop out with two on and two outs to end the eighth, then whiffed Jason Varitek, who had homered in the eighth, and pinch hitter Kevin Youkilis with the bases loaded to end the game.
"As I've said before, he kind of flies under the radar as a closer, [but] he's pretty good," said Ron Gardenhire, who managed this one as if the Twins were the team with a division title at stake, summoning Nathan for a four-out save (No. 36) while general manager Terry Ryan, who earlier this month announced he was stepping down, watched approvingly from the press box.
"Personally, I wasn't able to get the job done, but we battled, against a very, very good bullpen," Varitek said. "First pitch was on the outside corner, then I chased one up, laid off the first slider, but couldn't stay off the next one."
That was just half the story. The Yankees did their part to keep Boston a dry town, too, as they beat the Devil Rays, 3-1, even without their two biggest stars. The Sox' lead in the AL East shrank to two games with three to play. Any combination of Sox wins and Yankee losses totaling two, and owner John W. Henry, who watched from his field box, will have a new tapestry, one undoubtedly better suited to hang on the Monster rather than at his new $16 million estate.
The Sox were more than happy to hang their hat on Beckett, the 20-game winner unbeaten in four previous September starts (2.25 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 28 innings) and looking to put the finishing touches on a Cy-caliber season.
But Beckett, who had given up three runs or fewer in eight of his previous nine starts, was hit hard early and often by the Twins, giving up five runs on 10 hits in six innings.
"I think Josh left some fastballs over the plate and kind of paid the price for it," manager Terry Francona said.
The Twins came into the game with a major league-low 415 extra-base hits, including a total of two in their last three games. They matched that number five batters into the game against Beckett. Jason Bartlett lined a single to open the game and scored when Jason Kubel launched a drive that struck the garage door in center above outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury's head, scoring Bartlett. Michael Cuddyer opened the second by hitting a Beckett pitch over everything in left, and in the third, Bartlett doubled off the wall in center, took third on an infield out, and scored on Torii Hunter's sacrifice fly.
The Sox, meanwhile, answered with a couple of runs off Twins starter Boof Bonser. Ortiz doubled home a run and scored on J.D. Drew's single in the first, which ended with Eric Hinske rolling out with the bases loaded.
But Bonser settled in, holding the Sox scoreless until the fifth, by which time the Twins had made it 4-2, a double by Nick Punto and a single by Hunter, most likely making his last appearance in a Twins uniform here this weekend, accounting for the run.
Ortiz cut it to 4-3 with his 34th home run of the season, a powerful drive over the visitors' bullpen. But the Twins extended their lead again in the sixth, rookie Garrett Jones hitting a 96-mile-per-hour fastball into the center-field bleachers to make it 5-3.
Boof was no longer afoot in the sixth, having yielded to the bullpen. The Sox put on two in the seventh, but Matt Guerrier, the third pitcher of the inning, induced Mike Lowell to hit into an inning-ending double play.
Okajima pitched the eighth, gave up a single, then struck out two in his first appearance since Sept. 14, the Sox shutting him down after finally conceding he was fatigued. "Two weeks ago, yeah, I didn't even think I'm able to throw a pitch," Okajima said through translator Jeff Yamaguchi.
"Last night he was a little bit nervous because he was so excited he could pitch today and could perform good today," Yamaguchi added. "He didn't sleep much last night. A little bit nervous."
In the eighth, Varitek homered into the left-field seats off Guerrier to make it 5-4. With two outs, Hinske grounded a single through the right side and Julio Lugo hit a flare just over the infield, sending Hinske to third with the potential tying run. Gardenhire summoned Nathan. With a sudden violent shower falling, Nathan went to 3 and 1 on Pedroia while Lugo stole second. But Pedroia popped to first baseman Justin Morneau in front of the mound.
Rookie Brandon Moss, who has been Ramírez's personal valet, running for Manny when he is lifted from the game, doubled off the top of the scoreboard to lead off the ninth. "Papi just told me to go for the heat because he was going to throw me one," said Moss.
By that time, the Yankees' win already had been posted on the wall. Nathan, wanting no part of Ortiz, walked him on four pitches, then retired Lowell (0 for 5, two GIDPs) on a half-swing roller to first, the runners moving up. Drew was intentionally passed to load the bases, and there was magic in the air.
"I thought so," Moss said, "but [Nathan] made some good pitches and got out of it."
The Yanks head to Baltimore. The Sox call on Daisuke Matsuzaka. Sake, anyone?