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Qualified success

Sox relish playoff spot despite a dismal loss

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / October 1, 2009

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Early yesterday morning, sitting in a charter plane about a mile over a small airport in Stafford, Va., Terry Francona noticed his cellphone start working again. A series of text messages from Theo Epstein filled his inbox. He flipped immediately to the last one.

That’s how the Red Sox manager learned his team had qualified for the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, the wild-card berth becoming official when the Rangers lost to the Angels in Anaheim, hours after the Sox lost to Toronto at home. Francona called Brad Mills, his bench coach, to make sure somebody was supervising the clubhouse, which, by that point, “was wild,’’ according to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

The celebration yielded to another dreary and meaningless game, a 12-0 loss last night that finalized the Blue Jays’ sweep before 37,246 at Fenway Park. The Sox lost their sixth straight game as Tim Wakefield, trying to gut through another start, most likely threw the final pitches of his season. The Blue Jays had 14 hits before the Sox managed their first - a single to left in the sixth inning by Joey Gathright - against Roy Halladay.

Before the game, players still basked in the clinching. Some of them had headaches. A handful of players had found their way to the Baseball Tavern Tuesday night, and the party ran “pretty late,’’ Mike Lowell said. “We enjoyed our night.’’

The carpet in the clubhouse yesterday was spongy, still soggy enough that your feet got wet if you stood in one place. Electric fans blew in two corners. A bottle of Korbel rested on a shelf in Lowell’s locker. Team president Larry Lucchino shook hands with players and clubhouse staff.

“Maybe people that are around the team understand, maybe they don’t,’’ said Francona, who had gone to Virginia to watch his son, Nick, graduate from The Basic School of the Marine Corps in Quantico. “It’s a long year. For them to let it loose like that, together, I like it. I think it’s good for them. Winning should never get old.’’

For Wakefield, last night was more bitter than sweet. He lasted three innings and allowed five runs on seven hits, three of which left the park on a cold night.

Wakefield, 43, became an All-Star this year for the first time, winning 11 games as he stabilized the Red Sox’ staff. Now, his season may be over. His rickety left leg will almost certainly keep him off the postseason roster.

“I don’t make those decisions,’’ Wakefield said. “Those decisions will come down in the next couple days. I’ll deal with it when the time comes. If I’m on the team, great. I’ll give them everything I have, whether it’s in relief or a start or whatever. If I’m not, I’ll be the biggest cheerleader in the dugout.’’

Wakefield has been hobbled by a nerve injury in his back that weakened his leg to the point that he can barely cover first base. Last night, he had to field a bunt in the second inning, and he was never the same.

“You can see how it’s hurting or limiting him,’’ Francona said. “I thought after that play, I thought he was dragging it a little bit in his delivery.

“He had thrown a lot of pitches. He wanted to stay and pitch, which I respect a lot. I didn’t think that was in his best interest, so we got him out of there. He looked like he was feeling it.’’

In the second half of the season, Wakefield pitched when he could, making four starts so other starters could have an extra day of rest.

“I don’t want to give up on the team,’’ Wakefield said. “Regardless if I’m 60 percent or whatever, I feel like I’m needed. The staff has made it clear that I’m needed to be out there. I’m going to go out there at 40 percent if I need to. That’s the type of player that I am. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough tonight.’’

Jon Lester said Wakefield should not be viewed as a “place-holder.’’ Ultimately and unfortunately, after his great first half, that may have been his only role in the second half.

The dismal events of the game spoiled a celebratory mood at Fenway. Only the Red Sox and Yankees have current stretches of six playoff appearances in seven years.

“It’s something the organization is very proud of,’’ Epstein said. “Our ultimate goal is still ahead of us and hasn’t been accomplished yet. But you have to take time, even a small amount of time, when you qualify for the playoffs to look back at the path that got you there and how difficult it was. We recognize that is an accomplishment.’’

The Sox are unconcerned about this final stretch of games; Francona called them “cosmetic.’’ Asked how much momentum matters, he replied, “Zero.’’

The Sox used a lineup last night worthy of City of Palms Park, David Ortiz and Alex Gonzalez the only regulars playing. Rocco Baldelli switched from right field to third base in the seventh inning, the first infield appearance of his major league career.

The Sox dismissed the idea that losing a game on the night they clinched somehow cheapened the event, or that a losing streak on the eve of the postseason portends doom. Epstein feels good about the Sox as currently constituted, and the bleakness of their six-game losing streak, in his mind, does not take away from what his team accomplished.

“It feels good,’’ Epstein said. “It doesn’t really change who we are as a club. It’s still an accomplishment. I know the players in that clubhouse don’t feel we backed into anything given how hard they’ve worked to get here, and we’re excited about what’s next.

“What last night means is that we get validation that we were a good club and had a good season and most importantly we get a chance to accomplish our ultimate goal. We look forward to it.’’

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