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Bob Ryan

Sox: wrap party

Game 162 loss no big deal as playoffs near

Here's what you get on the last day when it's all wrapped up, neat and pretty.

You get Fort Myers North. The guys with the big names and the big salaries are all out of there by the sixth.

You get the skipper trying to give players the basketball Standing O.

You get some eye-popping relief pitching.

You get some astonishing scoreboard watching. The Mets down, 7-0, before they come to bat?

What you don't get, if you're a Red Sox fan, is a win, but at least the boys made things interesting, leaving the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 3-2 Minnesota triumph in a truly meaningless Game No. 162.

Now everyone has to wait until Wednesday, when the real fun starts. Josh Beckett vs. John Lackey. Around these here parts, we kinda regard that as appointment TV.

"It's exciting," said catcher Jason Varitek. "It's an exciting time of the year."

The captain gave his many fans a regular-season farewell present by slamming his 17th homer of the season in the sixth inning. In so doing, he messed up his skipper's grand plan. It was going to be Varitek's last at-bat, and the idea was that if he happened to get on, he would be pulled for a pinch runner, allowing the crowd to do what it had done when Terry Francona had removed both Dustin Pedroia and Mike Lowell after they had taken the field in the top of the inning - salute them with an ovation.

"It just felt right to let the fans show Mike Lowell what he had meant to them this year," Francona explained. "I was going to pinch run for Varitek, too, but I didn't need to."

The Twins scored all their runs in the first off Julian Tavarez, making his 23d start of the year and his first since Aug. 31. But that was the end of Minny's offense for the day. For, starting with the final out of the first inning (a Matt LeCroy ground out) Tavarez and five relievers retired 23 Twins in succession before pinch hitter Jason Kubel hit a one-out ground-rule double off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. So while the outcome was irrelevant, the skipper certainly felt that kind of dazzling performance from his many relievers meant something.

"Very pleased, very pleased," Francona said. "[That's] the way we drew it up - not the first inning - but after that, everybody came in, starting with [Jon] Lester and had clean innings. They threw strikes, didn't get stretched out too much. It worked out very well."

The parade of untouchables included Lester (two innings), Mike Timlin, Manny Delcarmen, Eric Gagné, and Papelbon, none of whom needed more than 20 pitches (Lester) to get the job done. Yes, this even included a rare 1-2-3 eighth for Gagné, although second baseman Alex Cora did have to roam a bit to his right to flag down a hot shot off the bat of Brian Buscher.

Truth be told, the Minny batters did not seem overtly interested in, shall we say, working the count. It is possible that after that first inning the Twin City guys had Logan Airport on their mind. Just a thought. There is a reason why the fastest game in baseball history, the 51-minute job between the Giants and Phillies, just happened to be played on the final day of the 1919 season.

OK, the 162-game preliminary is over. The Red Sox went into first place to stay April 18. They led everyone by as many as 12 and the people from the Bronx by as many as 14 1/2. It got down to 1 1/2, but they never lost the lead. They bottomed out with that three-game debacle in Toronto, but there was a welcome offday, and then there was the welcome sight of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When they absolutely, positively had to win they took six out of eight to nail everything down, and by everything we mean the AL East and the top seed in the playoffs.

Along the way there were decisions made about who would and would not play. There were lineups that people who do not believe in the big picture simply could not understand. But they were decisions Francona (and general manager Theo Epstein) believed were right, and look how it's all turned out.

"The hardest part for us was when we went through Toronto, getting beat up a little bit and getting knocked around on the field," Francona said. "But we kind of stuck to our belief in what we're doing and I think now that this season's concluded and we're ready to start another one, I think we're in a good position. We're healthy, we seem to be where guys can be productive. Nothing's ensured, but we're in a position where we should be able to play our best baseball."

They handed out the scouting reports for the Orange County American League Baseball Representative in thick three-ring notebooks, and, no doubt, there is some vital info therein. Postseason scouting reports have had great cachet ever since the late Jim "Inspector" Russo's sleuthing was given tremendous credit for enabling the 1966 Orioles to sweep the Dodgers. But knowing what you're supposed to do and doing it are different things.

Anyway, there really aren't all that many secrets. You and I and your Aunt Sadie know what it will take to win the requisite 11 games needed to become the 2007 World Series champion. But in case you don't, the captain will be happy to tell you.

"It begins with starting pitching," said Varitek. "Then you have to do the little things defensively. Of course, timely hitting always helps. You have to grind out those at-bats."

He didn't mention the bullpen. He didn't have to. That's in the "Duh" category.

The captain's right. It is exciting. You pity those people who aren't sports fans at a time like this.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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