ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - This wasn't the same as Yaz and Lonny and Boomer and the other Sons of Dick Williams back in '67, huddling around a transistor radio in the Red Sox clubhouse and waiting for Dick McAuliffe to ground into a double play in Detroit so they could win the American League pennant.
But an hour after they'd won, 3-0, to complete a confounding three-game sweep of the Red Sox yesterday, despite whiffing 13 times against Josh Beckett, the Rays of Tampa Bay received word that the Orioles had lost in Chicago to the White Sox, leaving them tied with Baltimore for first place in the AL East, .004 ahead of the Sox. Three days remain in April, but the Rays never have been at such dizzying heights at this stage of any season, except for the poor schlubs in charge of the catwalks in Tropicana Field.
Any day now, Bud Selig will green-light the Rays to print playoff tickets.
"It's been like one of the best weeks in franchise history," said left fielder Carl Crawford, who is in his seventh season with the club and rarely has experienced the giddiness that comes with a six-game winning streak, the Rays having beaten the Blue Jays three straight before taking the measure of the Sox. "You know, we're just going to try to keep it going. We've got that feeling of winning, and we kind of like it. It just speaks volumes about what we're trying to do here."
The best thing that can be said for the Sox, meanwhile, after losing their fifth in a row is that they don't have to play today, after showing up at the ballpark for games on each of the last 20 days. They should also have both David Ortiz and Mike Lowell back in the lineup when they face the Jays tomorrow night in Fenway Park.
Without Ortiz for a second day - he was prepared to pinch hit for Julio Lugo in the eighth, before Crawford doubled home a third run off Manny Delcarmen - the Sox managed just two hits against Rays starter James Shields, who pitched his first complete-game shutout. The Sox advanced only one runner to second base, and it took Manny Ramírez's first stolen base in three years to do so.
"Contract year," Ramírez cracked afterward. "I'm stealing bases."
"I'm just trying to make something happen," he said in a more serious vein. "I thought I was out. I was going, 'Yeah, I got a break.' "
Beckett, meanwhile, struck out the first five Rays he faced and registered eight of the Rays' first nine outs by strikeout in his first outing since being skipped a start with a stiff neck. But like Clay Buchholz, who took a one-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday night and lost, Beckett was left to explain how he lost on a day he was so dominating.
Pretty simple, really. Beckett made an errant pickoff throw in the third, Jason Bartlett scoring all the way from first when J.D. Drew's heave from right field landed in a different zip code from that occupied by Sox infielders. He also gave up a leadoff home run in the seventh to rookie Evan Longoria, whom Eric Hinske playfully refers to as "The Superstar" but assures one and all that the kid is the real deal.
"Obviously, I'm not happy with the results today," said Beckett, who struck out at least one batter in each of the seven innings he pitched, walked only one, and allowed just four hits. "I basically lost the game for us. The pickoff, and throwing a hanging curveball to Longoria. Those were two runs right there."
And there was Shields, a 26-year-old righthander who gave up two ground-ball singles - one to Dustin Pedroia in the first, the other to Lugo in the sixth - and no more to a Sox team that has been shorthanded all week because of the flu but finally looked tapped out minus Ortiz and Sean Casey, who went down Friday night with a right hip flexor injury.
"That's not the first time that kid has pitched that kind of game," Beckett said of Shields, who mixed a superior changeup, sinker, and cut fastball to keep Sox hitters off balance all afternoon. "I don't know if he's ever pitched that deep, but I don't think that's going to be the last time he outpitches anybody, either."
Bartlett, the newcomer from the Twins who had beaten the Sox with his glove Friday night, grounded a one-out single to center in the third. Beckett threw over to first, where Kevin Youkilis (0 for 10 this weekend) was shielded from the ball by the runner, the throw carrying into the home-team bullpen along the foul line.
"I just flew open, trying to be too quick," Beckett said. "I'm not that athletic."
Longoria, who had struck out in each of his first two at-bats - called out the first time on a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and then looking at a breaking ball for strike three his next go-round - had a 2-and-2 count when he launched another curveball from Beckett over the fence in left.
"I told myself that third at-bat I wasn't going to strike out," said Longoria, who has blitzed through the Rays' system since being drafted third overall in 2006. "I wasn't going to get beat. He got the two strikes, I just kept battling, and he finally gave me a pitch I could handle."
Sox pitching coach John Farrell was impressed by Longoria's at-bat.
"That was the third time in the at-bat Josh threw him a curveball," Farrell said. "The third one was up and he got some extension on it.
"Josh was probably his own victim today, throwing that one errant pickoff and the curveball to Longoria. Going up against Shields, the way he was throwing today, those mistakes were magnified."
The Sox won't have to wait long for another crack at the Rays; they visit Fenway this weekend. Maybe the flush of first place will have faded by then, but it looks like the respect is here to stay.
"They've always been good," Beckett said. "They run, they're young, they're aggressive, they've got a lot of the main intangibles you want from a young, athletic team."