Boston beats Twins 5-2, then clinches AL East title
Ecstatic fans joined in to savor Boston’s first division title in 12 years, and the end of the New York Yankees’ long run on top.
More than an hour after the Red Sox beat Minnesota 5-2, the Yankees lost at Baltimore to make it official. Moments later, Boston players popped champagne corks in the clubhouse while a few thousand fans left at Fenway Park let loose, the echoes of their cheers spreading through the mostly empty stadium.
“I pulled my hamstring jumping off the couch,” said manager Terry Francona, who watched the end of the Yankees game in his office with general manager Theo Epstein and owners John Henry and Tom Werner. “It’s fun to see grown men act like little kids.”
With Boston’s win, New York’s loss and Cleveland’s 5-3 victory over Kansas City, the AL playoff pairings were set: The Los Angeles Angels will open at Boston, and the wild-card Yankees will start at Cleveland.
The Yankees, who had won the last nine AL East crowns, took a 9-6 lead into the bottom of the ninth at Baltimore. Then former Red Sox outfielder Jay Payton tied it with a bases-loaded triple. And Melvin Mora bunted in the winning run with the bases loaded in the 10th.
Fenway fans who stood to watch the end of that game on the center-field scoreboard shouted as the message board flashed: “CHAMPIONS OF THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST.”
“It’s unbelievable,” backup first baseman Eric Hinske said. “Hopefully, this is just the beginning.”
Matsuzaka (15-12) had set up the celebration with eight strong innings against the Twins. He won for just the second time since early August and David Ortiz homered for the fourth time in seven games.
When the division title was assured, Red Sox players poured from their clubhouse, through the dugout and onto the field.
Ortiz, wearing street clothes just a half-hour earlier, was sporting a white division champions T-shirt and goggles. Papelbon, who earned the clinching save, stood near home plate in a red T-shirt and dark blue shorts, sprayed champagne, then flung the bottle high into the air. Later, he danced near second base as teammates showered him from their own bottles.
Boston has held sole possession of first place since a 4-1 win at Toronto on April 18. The lead soared to a season-high 12 games on July 5 with a 15-4 win over Tampa Bay in which the Red Sox had a season-high 21 hits and Josh Beckett, baseball’s only 20-game winner, improved to 12-2.
Their biggest lead over the Yankees was 14 1/2 games on May 29 when they improved to 36-15 while New York was 21-29. But it was down to 1 1/2 games after the Red Sox lost their fourth straight game on Sept. 19 at Toronto.
They started play Friday night with a two-game edge and ended the night as division champions. Boston had finished second to New York for eight straight seasons from 1998 to 2005 then came in third last year, behind the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays.
They made a huge splash by signing Matsuzaka in the offseason. It cost them $51.11 million for the rights to negotiate with the star of the Seibu Lions. Then they signed him to a $52 million, six-year contract.
“It’s as good as it gets,” Henry said while holding a victory cigar. “To win the division, that’s what you want to do.”
Since beating Seattle on Aug. 4, Matsuzaka was 1-4 with a 7.09 ERA in eight starts, raising suspicions that he might be wearing down in the latter stages of his first season in the major leagues.
But he set the tone Friday by striking out his first two batters, and he let only one runner get past first base until the Twins closed to 4-2 in the seventh on Justin Morneau’s 31st homer and Brian Buscher’s run-scoring groundout.
“There are going to be many important games in a row,” Matsuzaka said through a translator. “Knowing that fact, I just wanted to set myself up and throw a good game and, hopefully, that will carry me into the playoffs.”
Matsuzaka wound up allowing two runs and six hits in eight innings with eight strikeouts and two walks. Papelbon finished for his 37th save in 40 opportunities.
“He never really threw two balls in the same place,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “That makes for a tough night.”
He struck out Torii Hunter twice and ended the eighth by getting him to ground into a double play.
“Dice-K,” Hunter said. “His name says it all. He had a lot of Ks today.”
Mike Lowell had two RBIs, increasing his team-leading total to 118, and Ortiz stretched his streak for reaching base to 11 straight plate appearances with a double and single before grounding out.
Kevin Slowey (4-1) gave up four runs and seven hits in 5 2-3 innings, the first major league loss for the rookie. Minnesota fell to 78-82, guaranteeing its first losing season since 2000.
Ortiz’s 52nd double, Lowell’s RBI single and J.D. Drew’s run-scoring double put Boston ahead 2-0 in the first.
Lowell hit a run-scoring grounder in the third, and Kevin Youkilis chased Slowey with an RBI single that made it 4-0 in the sixth.
Ortiz homered in the eighth off Matt Guerrier.
“It’s October,” said Curt Schilling, drenched in champagne. “That’s when great players play great. Hopefully, we have a few in this clubhouse.”
Slowey had been 1-0 in his previous six starts and made his first appearance against Boston. … The Red Sox are just 3-8 in their last 11 games against the Twins.
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