BOSTON -- In front of their fans, the Red Sox's night ended with Kevin Youkilis striking out looking with the winning run on first base. But out of view, hours after that final pitch crossed the plate, Red Sox players slowly returned to Fenway Park, celebrating in the early-morning hours while the streets were empty and the lights turned off.
The Angels had just eliminated the Texas Rangers shortly before 1 a.m. ET, and a group of players gathered in the clubhouse, yelled at the TV and then popped the champagne, celebrating the American League wild card -- even if it came by way of a loss.
"We're excited any time you make the playoffs," said Dustin Pedroia, who was one of four players the Red Sox public relations staff brought out of a closed clubhouse. "It doesn't matter how you do it as long as you're in."
The Red Sox are in the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years, and will face a familiar foe -- the Angels -- in the American League Division Series.
Because the Red Sox decided to close the clubhouse to the media, the images of players celebrating are lost. But Mike Lowell provided one when asked what closer Jonathan Papelbon was doing: "He's probably in a thong right now wearing goggles drinking a Budweiser."
For a few innings, it looked as if the Red Sox might make the playoffs the traditional way: by winning. Down 8-2, they had rallied in the eighth inning by scoring five runs. But Jason Frasor closed the game for Toronto for an 8-7 win, stunting the celebration for more than three hours. After the game and before the clubhouse closed, most players who were polled said they would likely come back.
"The whole point is to try and win -- win and celebrate," Alex Gonzalez said after the game. "I don't know [whether] to stay or not. The best [would have been] to win tonight and celebrate."
Manny Delcarmen said he was going to a friend's house about 15 minutes away, and if in the later innings the game was close, he would drive back to Fenway.
"It's a tough situation," Delcarmen said. "I don't think they're going to let the fans stay here until 1 in the morning."
They didn't, but they let the players come back. And so when it was time to return, they started streaming in; Dustin Pedroia went home and tucked his son into bed, Jason Bay met up with his agent for a drink, and some players, like Mike Lowell, never left.
"I know it wasn't the ideal thing. You'd probably much rather do it on the field after a victory," said Lowell, dripping in beer and champagne as the wafting smell of cigar smoke filtered out of the clubhouse door behind him. "But we worked hard all year to get to this point; I don't care how it comes. We deserve to celebrate just like the other teams and we're excited to be here.
"This is hopefully step one."
It was an odd way to celebrate, especially for a team that's lost five in a row, and seven of its last nine. One more loss, and it will match the longest losing streak of the season.
But for the most part, the players didn't care. Lowell estimated that around 90 percent of the players were there, and many support staff also were seen when the clubhouse door would occasionally open. Manager Terry Francona said he would not come back, choosing to go home instead.
"It's a little different," said Bay, who spent five-plus seasons in Pittsburgh. "...I think I have a perspective maybe some people don't just because of the situation I have been in. Honestly, this never gets old."
Perhaps lost in the evening was Clay Buchholz's shaky start. He allowed a career-high five homers and gave up seven runs and eight hits. The loss snapped his eight-game unbeaten streak. He was 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA during the stretch. It was surprising because Buchholz entered the game with great numbers against the Blue Jays, going 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA against them this year before Tuesday.
"He's like [Matt] Garza," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said before the game. "They pitch so good against us."
But not on Tuesday night, when a few runs would have made all the difference between the Red Sox celebrating with a win on the field, or instead in the most unorthodox of ways.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com. You can reach her at email@example.com or at twitter.com/amyknelson.