BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox could have thrown off the burden of their come-from-ahead history yesterday, but that's just not the way it works around here.
It would have taken only one more victory over the Toronto Blue Jays to assure the Red Sox a tie for the American League East title. Instead, they melted under a shower of base hits that did not subside until the Blue Jays had recorded a 10-5 victory and tightened the race again.
The Red Sox still have a one-game advantage, but their next stop isn't exactly the comfort zone. The stubborn Chicago White Sox arrive at Fenway Park today. The Blue Jays are in Baltimore for three games at Memorial Stadium. If the two lockout series do not decide the division, then it would come down to a one-game playoff at SkyDome.
The schedule appears to favor the Blue Jays, who have won seven of their 10 games against the Orioles this year. The Red Sox have struggled against Chicago, winning four of nine, but all three at Fenway Park.
"The White Sox play great baseball," Toronto manager Cito Gaston said, "and, hopefully, they'll come in here and win a couple of games. We're still in it. The whole season has gone this way."
The resounding victory had to give the Blue Jays a lift, though the Red Sox still took the series and, apparently, control of the race.
"I think we can do it," said Toronto left fielder George Bell. "We just have to hope that Chicago comes in here and sweeps their butts, and we have to to to Baltimore and try to sweep them."
The Blue Jays' half of the equation is not so far-fetched, especially if they continue to hit the way they did during the weekend. They had 19 hits yesterday, including four in the first five innings by first baseman Fred McGriff.
It was an offensive bonanza that came at a most critical time for the Blue Jays, who were not in a position to leave anything to chance, but they left enough runners on base in the early innings to leave the game in doubt until they scored three times in the seventh to take a six-run lead.
Boston starter Greg Harris struggled from the start, giving up four runs in 1 2/3 innings. But it could have been much, much worse. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, and reliever Joe Hesketh escaped another in the second on a diving catch by Tom Brunansky in right field.
The Red Sox rallied to tie against Toronto left-hander Jimmy Key, but the Blue Jays did not let up, scoring three runs to regain the lead in the fifth and three more to break open the game in the seventh.
"You just can't score enough runs in this ballpark," said McGriff, whose 4-for-6 performance raised his season average to .301. "You just have to keep scoring."
Key worked 6 2/3 innings and gave up five runs on nine hits to record his 13th victory. He walked one and struck out five before turning the game over to Jim Acker and eventually Tom Henke, who combined to give up one hit over the final 2 1/3 innings.
So the Blue Jays are alive, and the Red Sox have to hope they did not leave too much of an opening as the season moves into lockout-induced overtime. The specter of that blown 6 1/2 -game lead still haunts them and will continue to do so until they clinch the division title, if they can.
"Today would have been icing on the cake," said Red Sox shortstop Jody Reed, who had three hits, "but the main thing we wanted to do was to take two of three, and we accomplished that. We've still in the driver's seat. If we take two of three from Chicago, they'll have to sweep Baltimore just to tie."
The driver's seat is not a pleasant place to be in Boston, where a skeptical Red Sox public seems to be waiting for the club's inevitable collapse.
"We have to remember that we won two of three," third baseman Wade Boggs said. "If the lockout hadn't occurred, we'd have clinched yesterday."
But it did, and they didn't. Now, there are all sorts of possibilities, including the indignity of having former Boston hero Carlton Fisk have a hand in their undoing.
The Blue Jays have the better track record against their last regular-season opponent, but they'll have to get by two Orioles rookies -- Jose Mesa and Ben McDonald -- who have defeated them this year.
"We have to go to Baltimore and play the way we did today," Bell said. "We need to hit-and-run, hit behind runners, make the big plays."
Bell had three hits and drove in two runs, but his performance in left field this weekend has left open to question the decision to move him back into the outfield for such an important series. He did battle with the Green Monster and lost, but a couple of ugly plays yesterday were overshadowed by a big day at the plate.
The Blue Jays had a number of offensive heroes, the most unlikely being third baseman Kelly Gruber, who reached base four times and scored three runs without the benefit of a hit.
Gruber reached base in the first inning on a strikeout and a wild pitch. He also walked twice and reached on an error. But his resourceful performance was far more valuable to the club than the grand slam he hit in the ninth inning of Saturday's 7-5 loss.
Seven of the other eight starters had multiple-hit games, including three-hit performances by Mookie Wilson, Tony Fernandez and Bell. But even a string of repeat performances at Memorial Stadium will not guarantee a return to the playoffs.
"It's really in their [the Red Sox's] hands," Gruber said. "They have to win, but, against Chicago, that's going to be tough to do. We just have to hope that they lose."
NOTES: McGriff finished the regular season with a .396 average against the Red Sox, accumulating 19 hits in 48 at-bats. . . . The total attendance of 105,582 was the highest for a three-game series in Fenway Park history.