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BOSTON -- The Texas Rangers, assuming they hold off the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West, could always crash the party. They're the defending American League champions, after all.
The Detroit Tigers, with Justin Verlander threatening to throw a no-no every time he takes the hill, also may have other ideas.
But judging by what we witnessed this weekend, the stars are aligning for a rematch of that epic October extravaganza, Red Sox-Yankees, a rendezvous with destiny that might seem like it happens every year but hasn't taken place since 2004.
Great pitching, exquisite defense, a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against the great Mariano Rivera, and finally, as the clock ticked well past midnight during the longest Sox-Yankees game of the season (4 hours, 15 minutes), a walk-off hit by Red Sox rookie Josh Reddick for a 3-2 win in the 10th before a wrung-out crowd of 38,189 at Fenway Park.
Drama? This is only August, and in the house Sunday night were Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, new Patriots star Chad Ochocinco and eminent writer Gay Talese. Oh, and former Sox star Curt Schilling, whom manager Terry Francona jokingly referred to as Michael Moore, which would have been really aggravating to the Big Schill if Francona were comparing their politics and not their girth.
Hard to imagine a group of more dissimilar celebrities, all drawn to the singular spectacle of baseball as played by these blood rivals.
Imagine if we have October redux.
"I was telling people that all these games against them are just preparation for the possibility of that," said Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, whose father's cousin has come to know Slim well through business dealings and arranged for a meeting between billionaire and ballplayer.
"It's all just stuff for the mental battle, if the situation comes up where we face each other. There's no saying we're going to, because we both have to play somebody else first, but if we do face each other, that's all this is: stuff you put in the memory bank, because when you do get to the playoffs you'll have a really good idea of how they're going to go after you."
Forget about the fact that the Red Sox have won 10 of 12 meetings against the Bombers this season, assuring them of winning the season series for the first time since 2004. This weekend vividly served as a sneak preview of the way these teams will go after each other if they meet in the fall.
"No, no, no, nothing is inevitable in baseball," said Jon Lester, whose one bad inning Friday night led to a narrow one-run defeat in the series opener. "A lot can happen. We've got a long ways to go. They've got a long ways to go. We've got to stay healthy.
"A lot of things have to fall into place. They've got to play good that first series. We've got to play good that first series. If we both get to that point, we'll see what happens then."
|The Sox enjoy the upper hand over the Yankees for now, but this drama is far from over.|
Lester has already been in a World Series, and pitched the clincher. He has thrown a no-hitter, been named an All-Star. One thing he hasn't experienced is a playoff series against the Yankees. How much would he like to add that to his résumé?
"I don't see why you wouldn't," he said. "If it's anything like we do in the regular season, I'm sure it would be fun."
The fun for the Sox appeared to be in short supply on a long night in which they'd twice left the bases loaded, Josh Beckett had pitched brilliantly again with nothing to show for it, and Yankees leadoff hitter Brett Gardner, with his tiebreaking home run off Matt Albers, wrested away leading-man honors from Sox leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury (six RBIs Saturday, eight men left on base Sunday).
The Yankees had lost only twice in 65 games in which they'd led after eight innings. The Sox had won just once in 42 games in which they trailed after eight.
But here in the ninth was Marco Scutaro -- who described his walk-off home run off Rivera in Oakland as "unbelievable, one of the top moments of my career" -- whacking a leadoff double off the Monster in left, his fourth hit of the night, taking third on Ellsbury's bunt and scoring on Dustin Pedroia's sacrifice fly.
That merely served as sizzling prelude to the 10th, when Reddick, taking his cue from the curveball that David Ortiz had smacked for a ground-rule double to open the inning against Phil Hughes, the seventh Yankees pitcher, sat on the same pitch and whacked it into left field, the ball falling inside the foul line to allow pinch runner Darnell McDonald to score.
"I hit it really well," said Reddick, who took a wide detour into right field in a futile attempt to avoid an onrushing gaggle of teammates led by Pedroia and Ortiz. "I barreled it really well, and it was fading toward the line. Even with [left fielder] Gardner's speed, I felt like it was going to get there. We had D-Mac running with fresh legs. I knew he was going to score, no matter what."
Scutaro is in his 10th season in the big leagues but has gone to the playoffs just once, in 2006 with Oakland, when the underdog Athletics surprised the Twins in the first round and then were eliminated by the Tigers in the ALCS. How much would he relish a Sox-Yankees revival meeting in October?
"I just want to play in October, I don't care who we play," Scutaro said. "I just want to go to the playoffs and World Series. But I don't care who we play.
"Of course," he admitted, "the atmosphere is different when you play the Yankees. Everybody's watching. Your concentration level is a little better."
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek had a longer night than most. Besides being on the receiving end of all 176 pitches thrown by Sox pitchers over the course of a game that ended at 12:25 a.m., Varitek also popped out on a 3-and-0 pitch with the bases loaded in the sixth. Then, with another chance in the eighth, this time with the tying run on third, Varitek popped out again.
"I got a good pitch to drive in that situation against someone [Cory Wade] who doesn't throw real hard," Varitek said of the 3-and-0 swing. " I had a good pitch to hit; I missed it. I popped it up."
No, he said with a look of surprise at the notion, he wasn't looking for a hole to crawl into after that at-bat.
"I had a 'swing away' at 3-and-0 and I just popped it up," he said. "That's better than taking [a third strike] right down the middle. I mean, it's one thing if I'm out there and being passive and not trying and not giving it. But I gave it. I screwed up. I popped it up."
But in the seventh, when the Yankees could have busted it open against a wild Franklin Morales, Varitek made what may have been the finest defensive play on a night in which gems abounded on both sides -- Reddick's throw to nail Russell Martin at second, Kevin Youkilis' diving backhanded stop to take a hit away from Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira's diving stab of Ellsbury's bid for a base hit, Jeter's leaping throw from the hole to force Gonzalez.
With the bases loaded, Varitek somehow blocked a 50-foot curveball from Morales, preventing a third run from scoring.
"I have to watch that one," he said. "I can be proud of that one."
How did he do it?
"I don't have an answer," he said. "Grinding. Just grinding."
The way the Yankees and Red Sox do most every time they meet. The schedule calls for them to meet again later this month in the Fens, then for a September weekend in the Bronx.
And after that?
"It's so far ahead," Varitek said. "You expect the best to play the best, but you don't know what's going to happen between now and then. We have to focus on ourselves."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.