On a crisp evening that had a huge crowd roaring on almost every pitch, at least at the beginning, the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians played a game worthy of October. They played a game that had the American League's best pitcher at his Cy Young best, a game that had the Indians rallying from behind in the eighth and the Red Sox answering in the ninth.
Finally, it ended in the 13th when Boston's Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon homered off reliever Jim Brower to defeat the Indians, 6-4, in front of the smattering of fans remaining from a sellout crowd of 43,224 at Jacobs Field.
And it meant something for both teams. Although the Indians (89-56) have wrapped up a fifth straight Central Division championship, they're just two games ahead of the New York Yankees in the race for best record in the American League and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
For the Red Sox (84-62), the victory completed a 9-3 road trip in which they swept the Yankees last weekend and won two of three from the Indians. Along the way, they trimmed the New York lead in the AL East to 3 1/2 games and stretched their lead over Oakland in the race for the wild-card slot to 3 1/2 games.
"There are a lot of interchangeable parts on this team," said reliever Rod Beck, recently acquired from the Chicago Cubs. "We run, hit-and-run and use a lot of guys. That's what it takes to win."
If the American League standings remain the same, the Indians will open the playoffs against the Red Sox for a second straight season. If the Red Sox succeeded at nothing else tonight, they at least gave the Indians something to think about.
Specifically, they gave them Pedro Martinez, from the 96-mph fastball that broke three bats in the first three innings to the knee-buckling change-up that might be the single most unhitable pitch in the big leagues.
In a game that had the look and feel of the postseason, Martinez again showed the world why the upstart Red Sox have a chance in a season when five or six teams appear capable of winning the World Series. Five days after humbling the Yankees in a dazzling 17-strikeout performance, Martinez struck out 14 and allowed two runs in seven innings. In 27 starts, Martinez has allowed two or fewer runs 22 times, but he watched from the dugout tonight as his bullpen surrendered a one-run lead that cost him his 22nd victory.
"We've had a good trip, stayed focused and made up some ground," Martinez said. "Right now, we can play with any team."
Tyler Houston's two-run double in the eighth off reliever Rich Garces turned a 3-2 Boston lead into a 4-3 deficit. The Red Sox tied it, 4-4, in the top of the ninth on a pair of singles and a sacrifice fly by Nixon. It stayed tied until Varitek led off the 13th with his 17th home run.
The Indians endured a Game 1 playoff loss to Martinez a year ago, then won three in a row to finish the Red Sox before seeing him again. This season could be different because the Red Sox seem so different. Having gone 80 years without winning a World Series and having become synonymous with angst and frustration in New England, the Red Sox are an intriguing mix of parts that somehow work.
"I just like this team," Manager Jimy Williams said. "I enjoy watching them play. I enjoy watching them practice. They do it right."
They are perhaps baseball's hardest team to explain. Their starting rotation is in such shambles that Williams said: "Here's the way I look at it: I've got Pedro tonight, an off day tomorrow and Pat Rapp on Friday. After that, I have no idea."
Bret Saberhagen is pitching despite a frayed rotator cuff that has forced him onto the disabled list three times and will require postseason surgery. He's so uncertain from start to start that Williams had a backup starter ready last Sunday when Saberhagen was scheduled to start. At various times, Williams has sent guys named Mark Portugal, Ramon Martinez, Juan Pena and Brian Rose to the mound.
The Red Sox have used 13 starting pitchers -- most in the majors. If that sounds high, consider the bullpen, which has gotten saves from seven relievers. Beck is the fourth closer the Red Sox have used. He was switched to that role because Tim Wakefield, who had been a closer, was needed for the depleted starting rotation.
There's more of the same in the everyday lineup. After Mo Vaughn departed via free agency last winter, General Manager Dan Duquette was roundly criticized for spending $26 million on second baseman Jose Offerman and discussing in vague terms how a number of guys could take up the slack left by Vaughn's departure.
He was right. After a winter of being torched on Boston's harsh talk shows, Duquette is on the verge of putting a third Boston team in five years in the playoffs.
Offerman has been as good as Duquette hoped. He hit a two-run home run tonight off Cleveland starter Bartolo Colon and has had a batting average close to .300 all season and also has driven in 65 runs.
Then there's outfielder Troy O'Leary. Duquette picked him up on waivers from Milwaukee because he saw something others didn't. This spring, he challenged O'Leary to meet the challenge of helping replace Vaughn. O'Leary entered tonight's game with a career-high 27 home runs and 99 RBI.
And there's first baseman Brian Daubach. A nine-year minor leaguer, Daubach was ready to sign with a Japanese team when Duquette phoned and offered a contract. Daubach has responded with 19 home runs and 70 RBI.
But the Red Sox say that people who get caught up in the numbers will miss the real reason for their success. Williams sees it every night when he peeks down the right field line and sees his players preparing for a game. Scouts see it when they see the Red Sox play hard every night and do virtually all the fundamental things right.
"I've had a couple of people tell me they enjoy watching us play -- regardless of the verdict," Williams said. "They must see something."