Red Sox relax in fifth, ease into playoffs again

Boston clinches wild card when Indians fall, then rips Yanks, 10-1



BOSTON -- After all of the anticipation and hoopla, after the high-profile injuries and the closed-door grumblings, after a grueling 162 games that once threatened to climax with a loser-go-home showdown between baseball's superpowers, this is what Fenway Park was left with last night: normalcy.

And a second consecutive day of champagne showers as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees both head to the postseason. Was there ever any doubt?

OK, there was plenty, but the defending World Series-champion Red Sox removed much of the anxiety quickly yesterday by pounding the Yankees early and often for a 10-1 win in the regular-season finale - an outcome that had no impact on the Red Sox's wild-card berth in retrospect.

Halfway through their game, the Red Sox learned the Chicago White Sox had beaten the Cleveland Indians again - allowing Boston to clinch the American League wild-card berth without worrying about a potential play-in against Cleveland today. It was Boston's third consecutive wild-card berth.

"After playing 162 games and not knowing until the very last day, this is special to get back into the playoffs," said Boston center fielder Johnny Damon. "Once you get there, everybody has an opportunity to win, and we have experience on our side."

The Red Sox (95-67) and Yankees ended with the same record, but the Yankees clinched the division Saturday because they won 10 of the teams' 19 head-to-head meetings. Now, both will begin the postseason on the road tomorrow.

Because of yesterday's defeat, the Yankees lost the second playoff seed to the Los Angeles Angels and will have to begin in Anaheim, Calif., tomorrow night. The Red Sox must go to Chicago, where they'll play the top seed and AL Central champion White Sox tomorrow afternoon.

"It's going to be a great series. It should be, because they have a great ballclub over there," said Boston second baseman Tony Graffanino, who played with the White Sox from 2000 to 2003. "There's a reason why they won all those ballgames, but we're feeling good about ourselves in here."

The Red Sox's postseason return became official during yesterday's fifth inning. The crowd of 34,534 rose to its feet and cheered when the score was posted on the Fenway Park video scoreboard.

"It was a relief," said Boston catcher Jason Varitek. "But, at that point, we had developed a pretty good lead."

Unofficially, a postseason spot was clinched when Manny Ramirez's bat fell onto home plate in the fourth inning. With two men on and two out and the Red Sox leading 3-0, Yankees reliever Scott Proctor tried to sneak a full-count, 94-mph fastball past Ramirez.

It wasn't a smart move.

Ramirez smashed the pitch beyond the center-field wall, flicking his bat to the plate and watching the ball soar for a few moments. He then clapped his hands, lifted his arms and nearly sprinted around the bases - effectively telling New England to come along for another crazy October ride.

"It gave us a bit of a comfort level, to be honest," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

Ramirez also helped set the tone in left field.

New York's Derek Jeter crushed Curt Schilling's second pitch of the game off the Green Monster for what looked to be a sure double. Ramirez played it perfectly, grabbing the ball bare-handed and rifling a throw to Graffanino, who easily tagged out Jeter.

To add injury to insult, Jeter bruised his right knee on the slide and later left for precautionary reasons.

Schilling (8-8) survived the three-hit first without yielding a run and kept the Yankees scoreless until Jorge Posada's RBI single in the sixth. It wasn't vintage Schilling, but Boston's ace showed he could still be effective in big games.

"He's ready, no question," Varitek said.

So, apparently, are the Red Sox after surviving a late-season scare to return to the postseason.

"People might remember this as the day we clinched in the fifth inning," Epstein said. "To me, I'm going to remember it as the day we came out on the last day of the season and had to win to get in and we did.

"It just so happened that Cleveland lost and we got in a little bit early, but the team deserves a lot of credit for taking care of business on a day that they had to."

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