- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BALTIMORE -- Red Sox reliever Alfredo Aceves -- who says the measure of whether he can pitch on a given day is whether he wakes up in the morning -- was waiting for Jonathan Papelbon when the Sox closer came off the field Tuesday night, his eyes still ablaze with the primal emotions of a baseball ending that sucked the oxygen out of two stadiums: one the beautiful retrofit of Camden Yards, the other a climate-controlled dome in Florida.
"Just one more," Aceves told Papelbon, embracing his teammate. "One more. Just one more. One more."
Well, in the end it may be two more, but at this point that's just a technicality. The Boston Red Sox go into the 162nd game of the regular season, six months after it began, tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for admission into the American League playoffs as the wild-card team.
The Red Sox held service by squeezing out an 8-7 win over the Baltimore Orioles, who played as if they were the team trying to extend their summer into October, both Nick Markakis and Adam Jones pushing Papelbon and the Sox to the brink of extinction with white-knuckle at-bats.
The Rays kept pace with a 5-3 win over the New York Yankees, coming from behind on a three-run home run in the seventh by Matt Joyce off Rafael Soriano, who as Rays closer the year before had given up just four home runs all season, only one with a runner on base.
"I think it's really good for baseball," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of the photo finish, "but it's not so good for my stomach. If you don't want to show up and play tomorrow, you've got no pulse.
"I mean, my goodness, I can't remember being that nervous in a long time. I'll go back to the hotel and not sleep and then show up tomorrow and see what we can do."
This was a duel conducted not from 10 paces but from a thousand miles away, with the Sox and Rays trying to outdo each other with wildly implausible storylines.
Ryan Lavarnway was supposed to have a front-row seat for the final days of this costume drama, nothing more. Instead, the Yale philosophy major with the raw power of a pile driver hit two home runs as an emergency stand-in for injured catchers Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, becoming the youngest Sox player since Nomar Garciaparra to hit two home runs in a game, and at exactly the same age: 24 years and 51 days.
Lavarnway, who hit a three-run home run in the fourth and a solo shot in the eighth that proved to be the margin of victory, also threw out a runner trying to steal and pounced on a ninth-inning roller into no-man's land that was screaming danger the moment it dribbled off Matt Wieters' bat.
"I was going after it, I looked at Pap to see if he was going to get it or not, and the look he gave me was, 'You better field this ball,"' Lavarnway said. "I went after it and I kind of tripped as I was throwing it a little bit, but I got the ball to first base."
All of that activity, of course, assured Lavarnway of being encircled by TV cameras, tape recorders and note pads after the game. The last time he'd found himself in the center of such a large scrum?
"Must have been 'Monkey in the Middle' in school," said Lavarnway, presumably referring to grade school back in Southern California and not the same hallowed halls that gave the Sox Larry Lucchino (law school) and Theo Epstein (sports writer on the school paper) but never a guy who embodies the Platonic ideal when he mashes a baseball.
Did he seem like a guy who went to Yale? "He's smarter than me," said Sox starter Erik Bedard, who lasted just 10 outs Tuesday night but could still share in the group hug afterward. "I went to a community college. It's a little different. He's calm, cool and collected, and that's what you need in a catcher."
The Rays, meanwhile, countered with their own Buckian "I don't believe what I just saw" moment: With the bases full of Yankees, a run already in and no outs in the sixth, the Rays saved their season when third baseman Evan Longoria triggered an around-the-horn triple play, the rally-killer none other than the "I Hate the Red Sox" man himself, Russell Martin.
An inning later, Joyce homered off Soriano, and the Rays, whose game finished shortly before Boston's did, briefly held a half-game lead. That is, until Papelbon brought an end to Jones's grueling 10-pitch at-bat by inducing a ground ball to third baseman Jed Lowrie for his 31st save.
This was Papelbon's first excursion since he went a season-long 2 1/3 innings against the Yankees in another gotta-have-it win Sunday night, the 14-inning, 7-4 exercise decided by the third home run of that day's doubleheader by Jacoby Ellsbury, who hit another as an encore Tuesday to give the Sox an early 2-1 lead.
How much did Tuesday night's harrowing ninth take out of Papelbon? One clue may be that he had no recollection at first of the Wieters dribbler. "Got to have short-term memory," he said by way of explaining his temporary amnesia.
But this was no time to be probing Papelbon for any sign of weakness. He feels, he said, like he could pitch until December.
"It didn't take anything out of me," he said. "I'm ready to go. I'm the final hoo-rah, man. That ain't taking nothing out of me. This game, man, if you ain't hustling you're getting hustled. If you ain't grinding, you ain't shining. Only the strong will survive. The weak will fall by the wayside."
That may not be philosophy the way it's taught in New Haven, but it works for Papelbon. And it works for Aceves, who offered further proof that Francona was right in resisting calls to use him as a starter by coming in for the third straight night and giving the Sox 3 1/3 innings of shutdown (one-run) relief.
He'll be back Wednesday night, too, if the manager wants him, he said. How will he know that he can go?
"As soon as I wake up, the minute I wake up, I'm good," he said.
This was a night of big contributions from Carl Crawford, who made a terrific running catch in foul territory and also tripled and scored, and Marco Scutaro, who doubled and homered, scored two runs and has quietly been one of the team's most prolific hitters during its dismal slide toward oblivion.
No talk now of collapse.
Both wild-card contenders play Wednesday night, the Rays throwing their premier left-hander, David Price, against a playoff-bound Yankee team that claims not to know who they will counter with. The Red Sox will be throwing their premier left-hander, Jon Lester, who will be working on three days' rest for only the second time in his career.
"I expect Tampa to win tomorrow and I expect us to win tomorrow," Papelbon said. "It's just the way it's going to be from here on out. Everybody in the clubhouse has to accept it and keep grinding."
It's one more. Well, and maybe more, if a one-game playoff is required Thursday in the Trop. How is that expressed in Acevian logic?
"First one," he said. "Then if we have two, one. One pitch, one run, one game at a time."
And through it all, can he feel his heart pounding through his chest?
"Yes," Aceves said. "I am a human."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
After Tuesday's high drama, the Red Sox say they're ready for the final act.