BOSTON -- The Baltimore Orioles never have been as popular at Fenway Park as they were last night, though the only sign of them was a seemingly inconspicuous three-letter entry on the hand-operated scoreboard in left field.
The crowd of 31,118 burst into wild applause each time the number changed next to that abbreviation, knowing that the right combination of numbers -- both at home and at Memorial Stadium -- would guarantee the Boston Red Sox at least a tie for the American League East title. And that's just what happened.
The Red Sox scored a 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Fan Appreciation Night at the Fens, and the Orioles pushed the second-place Toronto Blue Jays to match point with a 6-3 victory in Baltimore.
Boston's magic number is one, because the Red Sox survived a three-run Chicago comeback in the eighth and answered with the deciding run in the bottom of the inning on Dwight Evans' one-out single.
The Red Sox looked as if they were going to waste a strong performance by 29-year-old rookie starter Dana Kiecker, who pitched seven innings and gave up a run on six hits before veteran Larry Andersen came on to let a 3-0 lead get away. But Jeff Reardon came on to get the final four outs of the game and was the pitcher of record when Boston scored a run off White Sox middle reliever Barry Jones.
Though it will take only one Red Sox victory or one Blue Jays loss to put Boston in the playoffs, the Red Sox still were cautious on the subject of champagne and championships.
"The job's not done yet," Evans said. "We want to go out of this thing winning. We don't want to back into it. I never would have imagined we'd have a season like this. We've pulled together and overcome a lot of adversity. We've had a great season."
But even that last sentence still has to stand the test of time -- 48 hours' worth. The odds against two Boston losses and two Toronto victories are not so long that a Thursday playoff at SkyDome is out of the realm of possibility. The Red Sox have drawn a difficult opponent.
"It's tough playing anybody when you're trying to win that final game," manager Joe Morgan said, "especially a team with 93 wins. Some of the worst teams in baseball have beaten some of the best teams in baseball in the final days of the season."
The situation was curious to begin with. The White Sox came here to play spoiler, but with a twist. They also arrived with a 93-66 record, seven games better than the first-place Red Sox.
This kind of thing doesn't happen very often, since teams generally play teams from their division during the final weeks of the season, but this year's spring-training lockout forced each club to reschedule its first week of games.
That brought the White Sox to Boston fresh from an emotional farewell to Comiskey Park on Sunday. The White Sox have the third-best record in baseball. The Red Sox rank sixth among the 26 major-league teams. If that doesn't seem quite fair, consider that the American League West took advantage of just such a divisional disparity to win a pair of world championships in the mid-1980s (1985 Kansas City Royals and 1987 Minnesota Twins).
White Sox manager Jeff Torborg doesn't seem particularly upset by the situation -- partly because he's just happy to be in a position for it to be an issue and partly because comparing teams in different divisions is a precarious business.
"You have to be careful when you do that," Torborg said. "The situation is different, and the schedules are different. We just have to take pride in the tremendous strides we made this year."
The White Sox aren't playing for a pennant, but they still have something to play for -- the opportunity to climb higher on the franchise's list of winningest clubs. Taking two of three at Fenway Park would leave them with the organization's fifth-best record.
"I don't like the word spoiler," Torborg said, "because it sounds like you're out there trying to hurt someone, but I am glad these games mean something. Yesterday [the Comiskey Park celebration] was so beautiful. There was so much emotion that this could have been real deflating."
Speaking of deflating. The White Sox came within inches of taking the lead in that three-run eighth when Scott Fletcher hit a sharp ground ball down the left-field line. It appeared to be heading for extra bases and a go-ahead RBI, but Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs pounced on it and made a strong throw to get Fletcher at first.
"That's probably the most important contribution I made all year with my glove or my bat," Boggs said. "The main thing was stopping the ball and saving the run, but I got more on the ball than I thought I would."
The Red Sox were concerned about how deflating it would have been if their pennant hopes were hurt by former Boston catcher Carlton Fisk, which might explain why he walked on four pitches with a runner at second and one out in the first inning.