Yankees 8, Red Sox 4

Randy Johnson stepped out of the cool sunshine of Fenway Park and shuffled down the steps of the New York Yankees' dugout during Saturday's eighth inning. He entered the dank tunnel, with its plywood floors and puddles of standing water that smell as if they have been there since 1949. He climbed the old wooden steps that lead up to the visitors' clubhouse, pushed open the rusty steel door, stepped inside and stopped in his tracks, puzzled by what he saw.

The young clubhouse attendants were taping sheets of plastic to the Yankees' lockers -- the standard preparation for a champagne-spraying celebration. But until that point, Johnson, like many others in Fenway Park, had no idea the Yankees were just a few outs away from clinching their eighth straight American League East championship.

A half-hour later, when they had closed out an 8-4 win over the Boston Red Sox in the season's penultimate game, the jubilant Yankees took aim at each other with champagne cannons, with even the most jaded veterans delighting in an achievement that somehow seemed both preordained and near-miraculous.

"I don't know if it's the most satisfying -- because they're all satisfying," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, captain of the most expensive team in baseball history. "But this was by far the hardest."

The Yankees' win, coupled with the Cleveland Indians' loss at home to the Chicago White Sox -- a game that ended 14 minutes before Yankees closer Mariano Rivera secured the final out at Fenway Park -- gave the Yankees (95-66) the division title, even though the Red Sox (94-67) can still catch them in the standings in Sunday's season finale.

So why do the Yankees already own the division crown? Because they hold the tiebreaker over Boston based on head-to-head matchups (10-8 in favor of New York). Why would there not be a one-game playoff? Because a Boston win on Sunday would eliminate Cleveland and put both the Yankees and Red Sox in the postseason, and Major League Baseball does not force teams to endure a playoff for what is essentially a matter of seeding.

The Red Sox, in other words, are very much still alive: They can win the wild card on Sunday with a win or an Indians loss. Or, if the Red Sox lose and the Indians win, the teams would meet here Monday in a one-game playoff for the wild card.

"What are the odds," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona asked rhetorically after the game, "of us watching the Yankees celebrate, and we're coming into the clubhouse as excited as you can be about playing the game [Sunday]?"

For the Yankees, it has been a bizarre season, full of intrigue and injuries and dark days spent in third or fourth place. In the season's final week, the Yankees -- whose Opening Day starting rotation earned a combined $65 million this season -- sent to the mound starting pitchers named Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small and Chien-Ming Wang in consecutive games.

"This is the best one of all," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre, who was near tears following the final pitch, "because of all the things that went on this year, all the people we had come through here."

Still, it is hard to feel sorry for a franchise that, in its 161st game of a season that could go either way, can give the ball to the greatest left-handed pitcher of his generation and simply stand back and watch.

It was a struggle for Johnson at times. He needed 85 pitches to navigate the first four innings. He gave up homers to Manny Ramirez in the first and Tony Graffanino in the seventh. He escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second.

But the Yankees, who took batting practice in the bowels of the stadium Saturday morning against a retired knuckleball specialist who had been trucked in for that purpose, pounded Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield for seven runs in the first five innings, including homers by Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Alex Rodriguez.

The Red Sox would never again get the tying run to the on-deck circle, let alone to the plate. And Rivera -- whose failure to close out the Red Sox in Game 4 of last year's AL Championship Series opened the door to the Red Sox's historic comeback -- this time finished it off without incident.

"To do it here in Boston, where last year we couldn't finish it off," Rodriguez said, "makes it extra special."

As October dawned in New England, sunny and crisp and cool, only a few people seemed to be aware that a Yankees win, coupled with an Indians loss, would give them the division title. Torre was filled in just before game time by his bench coach, Joe Girardi, and a handful of players talked casually about it.

"Jeter was in here trying to explain it to everybody," Sheffield said, "but I wasn't even trying to hear it. I just wanted to play."

"I was always pretty good at math in school," Jeter said with a smile.

As for Johnson, whose left hand held both the ball and the Yankees' season for much of the afternoon, he didn't know until he went to the clubhouse to ice his arm after being pulled from the game, and he saw those plastic sheets.

Minutes later, with those plastic sheets protecting their expensive clothes and jewelry, the Yankees danced and hugged and sprayed, the air growing heavy with sweet mist and deep breaths of relief.

"They're all satisfying," said Derek Jeter, right, of another division title. "But this was by far the hardest." Randy Johnson didn't have his best stuff, but earned his 17th win with 71/3 effective innings. Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera finished the job.