When Jacoby Ellsbury slammed a three-run homer over the right-field bullpen in Yankee Stadium Sunday night, helping Boston to a 7-4, 14-inning win over New York, you could hear the collective sigh of relief from all of New England.
The Red Sox maintained their one-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race with three games remaining in the regular season. That means the Red Sox control their own destiny; if they sweep the Baltimore Orioles in a three-game series beginning tonight at Camden Yards, they will win the wild card no matter what anyone else does.
Easier said than done. Boston is 6-18 this month and just lost three of four to the Orioles at Fenway Park -- and gave up nine runs in the game they won.
For Red Sox fans, they likely breathe yet another large sigh: they won't see Tim Wakefield or John Lackey pitching again. The Sox will send Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard against the Orioles in the first two games of the series. The Orioles have Tommy Hunter listed for tonight and then... nobody. The Red Sox don't have a probable starter for Wednesday, either; that might depend on whether they've clinched the wild card by then. They could be anywhere from "clinched" to "one game behind and must win Wednesday" after Tuesday's game.
Meanwhile, the Rays draw the short straw in the schedule by playing the team with the best record in the AL, the Yankees, for the final three games. Good news and bad news: the good news is they get to play them at home. Bad news: the two teams have split six games in Tampa this year. More good news, though: the Rays have their best three pitchers (James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price) lined up for this series, and the Yankees will start Hector Noesi, Bartolo Colon, and on Wednesday have what manager Joe Girardi terms "a bullpen day". (The Chicago Cubs tried this on the last day of the 2008 season against the Brewers, a team fighting to win the wild card, and lost 3-1 when they could have had a chance to play the Mets instead of the Dodgers in the playoffs. It could be a case of "be careful what you wish for.")
So the Rays aren't out of it, by any means. If the Red Sox and Rays tie for the wild card spot, there will be a tiebreaker game in Tampa -- the Rays get the home game due to a better head-to-head record -- on Thursday.
Angels fans, meanwhile, will long remember closer Jordan Walden. Not for his fine season, but for the sure game-ending double-play ball that he threw into center field on Sunday, opening the floodgates for a four-run Athletics ninth inning and a soul-crushing defeat.
Now the Angels need to sweep the Rangers, while the Red Sox are getting swept, and have Tampa Bay win no more than one game against the Yankees. That would force a three-way tie (two-way if the Rays get swept). A three-way tie would make Bud Selig's head explode, with cross-country travel and at least two days of tiebreaker games involved. (So feel free to root for that.) A two-way tie between the Angels and Red Sox would result in a tiebreaker game in Boston; a two-way tie between the Angels and Rays for the wild card is not possible, because if those two tied at 89 wins, they'd also be tied with the Red Sox, and if they tied at 88 wins, the Red Sox would win (since they already have 89).
If the Red Sox do hang on after their mensis horribilis, they may be in for a treat. Two recent teams had slides as bad or worse than Boston's and won the World Series. In 2000, the Yankees lost 15 of their last 18 regular-season games and nearly blew the AL East title. They went into the postseason with the worst record of any of the eight teams, then went 11-5 in October, dominating the Mets in a five-game World Series.
And in 2006, the Cardinals led the NL Central by seven games with 13 left. They then lost seven in a row and nine of their last 12 and were saved from having to make up a rain-out against the Giants only because the Astros lost on the last day of the season. Then St. Louis also went 11-5 in the postseason and beat the Tigers in the World Series, also four games to one.
So hang in there, Red Sox fans. If your team does make it, the worst may be over. It all gets underway at 7 p.m. ET.