BOSTON, OCT. 3 -- The hysterical 33,637 at Fenway Park tonight seemed almost willing to call matters even for all time. The Boston Red Sox never flinched on a too-familiar evening of impending doom, and their season of unaccustomed overachievement ended with their third American League East title in five years after a 3-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox on the last day of the regular season.
Starter Mike Boddicker's poise and right fielder Tom Brunansky's continuing heroism proved too much for the ghosts of past Red Sox failings. Boddicker's 17th victory this season came in one of the most tense situations of his or any other career, as the Red Sox averted a possible Thursday playoff game against the Toronto Blue Jays and another of their September-or-beyond fades with Brunansky's diving catch in the right field corner.
The Blue Jays -- 3-2 losers in Baltimore -- finished two games back in the AL East after a season-long dogfight. The Red Sox (88-74), who won six of their last eight and seven of their last 12, will face the Oakland Athletics in the AL Championship Series beginning here Saturday.
"This is a great moment," said veteran Dwight Evans, who contributed an RBI single to a decisive, three-run second inning. "This is not the most talented ballclub, but these guys have the biggest hearts I've ever been around."
Indeed, this was a division race in whichv the Red Sox probably didn't even deserve to contend. They have glaring deficiencies, but their starting pitching -- with an AL-best 3.31 ERA -- carried a lackadaisical offense all year.
Tonight, Boddicker was underwhelmingly brilliant, scattering five hits and three walks over seven innings. The only run he yielded came in the seventh on Ozzie Guillen's two-out, bases-loaded single.
"Mike Boddicker is the kind of guy you want out there for a game like this," Red Sox catcher Tony Pena said. "He's calm when everyone else is excited. It's like he's taunting you with all those slow pitches."
Jeff Reardon got six outs for his 21st save -- but not without some anxiety. The game ended with Brunansky's diving catch of Guillen's drive on the warning track with two runners aboard.
"I thought we had at least a tie game there," said Guillen, who beat Boston Tuesday with an 11th-inning single. "If the inning keeps going, we might even win it."
Said Brunansky: "As soon as he hit the ball, I knew I was going straight for the line and I knew I'd have to leave my feet to get it. I knew I had it."
Several onlookers believed that the ball popped loose, but Brunansky said later that the blur was his cap falling off. He took the ball from his glove and handed it to first base umpire Tim McClelland as he left the field; McClelland came by the crowded area in front of Brunansky's locker afterward to return the souvenir.
A few fans managed to break the line of mounted police officers to join the on-field celebration, and Boston's clubhouse was a joyous mixture of blaring music and champagne vapor.
The only missing ingredient was Roger Clemens, who flew to Toronto this afternoon to get ready for a possible start in a 4 p.m. playoff at the SkyDome. "I told Roger, 'Don't go to Toronto,' " Pena exclaimed in the postgame madness.
Chicago rookie Alex Fernandez, the fourth selection in June's amateur draft, nearly matched Boddicker by yielding six hits and two earned runs over eight innings. Only Boston's second inning -- fueled by White Sox blunders afield and hits from Evans and Brunansky -- made him a loser.
The Red Sox went home after Tuesday's loss with an overflow of anxiety to try to control. They had been desperate to gain the clincher that night, which would have allowed Boddicker to skip tonight's turn and rest for Sunday's Game 2 of the ALCS. They never are allowed to forget the franchise's legacy of excruciating, late-season collapses amid 72 years without winning the World Series.
They were reminded this time that they were perhaps one day away from the third one-game playoff in AL history; they lost the previous two (1948 and 1978). They were reminded that the Blue Jays were two victories away from equaling the largest post-Sept. 1 deficit -- 6 1/2 games -- ever overcome by a division winner; Boston was victimized by New York's 1978 record run.
"It made for a restless night," Jody Reed said. "It would have been better for us just to go ahead and play the game right after" Tuesday's loss. The outlook became bleaker when it was learned today that Clemens had bruised a hand in a tantrum Tuesday.
Guillen's first-inning error led to nothing, but a botched rundown capped the Boston second. Greenwell led off by slapping a double into the left field corner, and Evans -- after contemplating a bunt -- brought him home for a 1-0 lead by grounding a base hit up the middle.
Brunansky sliced a line drive into the right field corner that Sammy Sosa played into an RBI triple. One out later, Manager Joe Morgan called for a suicide squeeze on the first pitch to Luis Rivera.
The White Sox pitched out and hung Brunansky off third. But the third throw of the rundown hit the back of Brunansky's helmet as he lunged back toward third; the ball deflected into short left field and it was 3-0.
"I just tried to get in the way without going out of the baseline," Brunansky said. "And it worked."
Boddicker (17-8) took it from there. He was 6-0 with a 2.77 ERA in his last eight starts of the year.
He baffled the White Sox with a combination of pitches and angles of attack that was reminiscent of his 14-strikeout shutout of Chicago as a Baltimore Oriole during the 1983 playoffs. He faced 16 batters in the first five innings.
The White Sox finally scored in the seventh but might have had more. Boddicker loaded the bases with one out on Frank Thomas's single and two walks. Scott Fletcher popped out, but Guillen nudged a single to left that scored Thomas; Dan Pasqua tried to come home from second on the play, but Greenwell's one-hop throw beat him by 15 feet and Pena tagged him out.
"These," Boddicker said, "are the nights you relish." It feels good when you can come through."