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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For fifth time in six years, Sox wrap up a playoff spot

Happy berth day

Red Sox celebrate a postseason berth (NECN) - The Red Sox had a champagne party after their victory over the Indians on Tuesday night clinched theirfifth postseason berth in six years.
By Adam Kilgore Globe Staff / September 24, 2008

The celebration erupted again at Fenway Park last night, Red Sox players storming from the dugout and streaming from the bullpen, a scene as familiar and predictable by now as the fall chill moving in. Korbel and Budweiser awaited in the clubhouse as they leaped on one another in the infield. There will be October baseball in Boston, something once rare, now expected, and always cherished.

On the strength of a 5-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians before 37,882, the Sox clinched a postseason berth, their fifth in six seasons, and with it comes the opportunity to defend their World Series championship. Game No. 157 also may have given Sox followers a measure of schadenfreude, for the Yankees' streak of 13 consecutive seasons in the playoffs was officially snapped.

The Red Sox, who spent the playoffs at home 75 times in 85 seasons between 1918 and 2004, have become postseason stalwarts. But they remain unjaded, appreciative. They doused one another as if it were their first playoff trip, 50 Cent bumping on the clubhouse speakers.

"You never, ever, ever take it for granted," said general manager Theo Epstein, taking a pull from a Bud Light. "One of our organizational goals is we wanted to transform the franchise into the kind of franchise that can be counted to be in just about every October. And that's not easy.

"We wanted to be like the Braves or like the Yankees, a team when you think of October baseball you think of the Red Sox. Now it's five out of six years and we're starting to get there. And starting to feel pretty good about it."

"It's not easy," said chairman Tom Werner. "It's remarkable to be here. We never take it for granted."

The bash carried from the field to the dugout. There was John Henry, the owner, smoking a cigar by manager Terry Francona's office. He overheard a reporter joke to Epstein that the GM deserved a raise. Henry poked his head toward the group of reporters and said with a smile, "He'll get one."

There was Jason Bay, soaked with champagne for the first time, the left fielder who replaced Manny Ramírez at the trade deadline. There was Jed Lowrie, swim goggles strapped to his forehead, the rookie shortstop fill-in who began the season in Pawtucket. There was David Ortiz, sipping a bottle of beer, the historically clutch slugger who missed 55 games this year.

Those three, perhaps more than any others, symbolized how arduous this season's achievement was. Between constant injuries, new additions, and one blockbuster trade, "it was more about survival this year," Epstein said. Survive they did, thanks largely to the farm system that produced MVP candidates Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, and the maneuvering of Epstein that added secondary but integral pieces like Paul Byrd and Mark Kotsay.

"It feels great," Francona said. "It feels maybe a little different every time, but it certainly doesn't ever become less enjoyable, less satisfying. It's a long season, and all of a sudden, you have a moment where you know you get to move on.

"We've had to handle this year a lot of frustration. Especially in the last six, seven weeks, we've really done that well."

Tim Wakefield, a member of the team longer than any other player on the roster, has helped the Sox become playoff regulars in recent years, but he had not won a clinching game - to make the playoffs or win a playoff series - until last night, the 399th start of his career. In doing so, Wakefield reached 10 wins in a season for the 10th time with Boston, tying Roger Clemens for the team record.

Youkilis and Pedroia provided the brunt of the offense with two RBIs apiece, Youkilis's coming on a fourth-inning home run. Bay capped a three-run fifth with an RBI single, the hit that stood as the winner. They did their damage off Cliff Lee, the presumptive Cy Young winner who entered 22-2 and lost for the first time since July 6.

Jonathan Papelbon, a recent face of Boston's October success, earned the save, emphasis on "earned." He entered with two outs in the eighth, Justin Masterson and Javier Lopez having loaded the bases. Jamey Carroll grounded the first pitch Papelbon threw, an outside fastball, to Pedroia, who flipped to shortstop Alex Cora to end the inning.

The ninth was Papelbon in full - menacing glares toward the plate, stalking around the mound, fastballs down batters' throats.

After two strikeouts, Victor Martinez popped up a pitch to the infield. Papelbon pointed to the sky and hopped to the right of the mound. Cora squeezed the ball. "Dirty Water" blared. The dugout emptied. The scrum inched toward shortstop, Papelbon whaling away on teammates. Youkilis broke free for a moment, then headed back for more.

Players formed two lines leading into the dugout, hugging one another on the way to the clubhouse. The coaches met each player in the dugout. A television reporter asked Pedroia for the most memorable moment of the year. "Right now," he said.

"Words don't describe it," said first baseman Sean Casey. "It's everything I thought it would be. This is the first step to hopefully getting that World Series title. It's one of those where we needed to come together as a team, and I think we did."

Papelbon reemerged on the field, a bottle of champagne in hand, and climbed to the top of the dugout. He poured the Korbel over his head, then chucked the empty bottle toward the infield. Papelbon hopped down and ran to right field, hand to ear, imploring the crowd to stand and cheer.

He hugged the police officer who stands guard over the Sox bullpen. The officer had earlier been soaked by relievers Javier Lopez, Manny Delcarmen, and David Aardsma.

The stands cleared. The players, eventually, went home. Corks and cans littered the clubhouse floor. The sweet notion that it could all happen again, soon, lingered.

"It's nice to know," Francona said, "we have more baseball to play."