Red Sox 4, Orioles 3

It has loomed for months now, a final weekend matchup that has been anticipated since the schedule was released. If things worked out the way they were supposed to, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox would meet in the final three games of the year to decide the American League East.

For a while it seemed the Baltimore Orioles would ruin that weekend, but it looks like the Yankees and Red Sox are headed to an important showdown once again.

"We seem to have played each other so evenly the last three years and have been so evenly matched -- well, except for payroll -- that I imagined at the beginning of the season that last series could be meaningful," Boston owner John Henry said.

The Sept. 30-Oct. 2 series became more meaningful after Boston's 4-3 victory over the Orioles on Saturday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox moved into a first-place tie with the Yankees, who lost on Saturday to the Toronto Blue Jays.

It is perhaps a tenuous thing that Boston is having to rely on rookies in late-inning situations with a playoff spot in jeopardy. In the days leading up to Saturday's game, fans and critics had been frustrated that Boston manager Terry Francona refused to use rookie Craig Hansen in critical spots.

The young reliever, drafted 26th overall this season from St. John's University, had not allowed a run in his professional career prior to Saturday, a span of 162/3 innings. In his major league debut on Monday, Hansen struck out two against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But on Saturday, Hansen faltered after being given a 2-0 lead, allowing a game-tying, two-run home run to Melvin Mora in the seventh inning.

But in the ninth inning, Edgar Renteria's two-out, two-run hit gave Boston the winning margin. The matchup with the Yankees now looms bigger.

"If I had some detachment I'd look at it from the macro-position of baseball and say 'My isn't this extraordinary?' " Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. "Being one of the teams whose postseason is uncertain, that uncertainty is the dominant feeling I feel."

Inexplicably, Red Sox starter Matt Clement had a no-hitter through four innings even though he had walked six and seemed to have little control of the strike zone. It only seemed that Clement had a 3-and-2 count on every Orioles batter.

Baltimore starter Erik Bedard was no better. He had almost exhausted himself in the first inning when he walked two and eventually loaded the bases. Boston scored two runs in the inning against Bedard, one on a deep sacrifice fly by Manny Ramirez with the bases loaded that drew gasps from the largely Red Sox crowd, and the other on a wild pitch.

But while Bedard could not minimize the rally in the first, Clement twice pitched out of harrowing situations. In both the second and fourth innings Clement walked the bases loaded. Both times Baltimore center fielder Luis Matos left them loaded.

It was not likely, though, that Clement would last long since he had exhausted himself in getting out of those two jams. By the end of the fourth, he had thrown 84 pitches. Bedard was no better in that regard, throwing 85 pitches in just four innings. So a 2-0 game in the fourth inning in which only two hits had been allowed had taken almost one hour and 40 minutes.

Both pitchers seemed to settle down after the fourth. Bedard retired seven consecutive Boston batters after his fourth-inning walk to Kevin Millar. Clement, with the help of a double play in the fifth and sixth innings, did not allow a run. His peculiar no-hit bid ended in the fifth, though, when Mora singled up the middle.

The game only became nerve-wracking with Hansen's appearance in the seventh.

"Some fans have talked about a little more tolerance and acceptance and patience, not things that have been the hallmark of Red Sox nation," Lucchino said. "But I think there are just as many that are living and dying with each game this year like they have for years and years and years."

Orioles starter Erik Bedard, who struggled early, mops his brow after yielding two runs in the first.