- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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But it ended more like 2003 for the Red Sox.
With the Yankees winning 4-3 on a bases-loaded walk allowed by reliever Hideki Okajima in the bottom of the 10th inning, any glimmer of optimism Boston had for a possible postseason berth, which was fueled by a ninth-inning rally against the great closer Mariano Rivera, is all but kaput.
New York was able to avoid a sweep, and the Yankees' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is down to one. Yankees manager Joe Girardi obviously felt it was a must-win game because he decided to change his scheduled starting pitcher, giving the ball to Phil Hughes (17-8) instead of Dustin Moseley (4-3).
"We definitely put a little fear in their heart. They planned on starting somebody else, and they wound up going with one of the aces of their staff," Red Sox outfielder Bill Hall said. "Like I said, that gave us a lot of respect going into this game. They knew it was almost a must-win for them. They rolled their best guy available. They really battled and had a big game, and unfortunately, we came up on the losing end."
Because the Red Sox won the first two games of this three-game set, their chances of pulling off a miracle actually rose. A sweep would have been a step in the right direction, with the Sox and Yankees to meet on the final weekend of the season at Fenway Park. Now the Sox will have to settle for the almost certain reality that they will not play past the regular-season finale on Sunday. One more loss or single wins by the Yankees and Rays will make it official.
"We came in here and played all out for three games, and that's all you can ask," Hall said. "But we've still got one game left that we can't lose, so we're going to continue to try to win out. We came in here and showed people what kind of character this team has. I'm proud of the way the guys played this weekend. It was unbelievable."
For the first six innings on Sunday it appeared the Red Sox might pull off the sweep, especially the way starter Daisuke Matsuzaka was pitching.
Boston held a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the seventh, when everything changed.
If history was any indication, the advantage belonged to Matsuzaka because Rodriguez entered that at-bat with a career .095 average (2-for-21) against the Sox right-hander. Matsuzaka had an 0-2 count, but he left a pitch a little too much over the inside of the plate, and Rodriguez ripped an opposite-field shot for his 29th homer of the season.
"In my mind, I was thinking of the strikeout pitch that I threw him in his first at-bat," Matsuzaka said. "I didn't think that pitch on the 0-2 wasn't in that terrible of a spot, but he put a good swing on it. I also thought to myself that it's a good ballpark if you're a hitter."
It was the first time in the series the Yankees had the lead.
"He only made one mistake," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I think that's what he did. He left an 0-2 pitch to Alex, he tried to get in, but it didn't get in enough."
Fast-forward to the ninth inning.
With the Yankees still holding a 2-1 advantage and Rivera on the mound, Boston's chances seemed slim. Then, thoughts of 2004 suddenly emerged when the Red Sox produced a one-out rally, stealing four bases in the process, and pushed across a pair of runs to take a 3-2 lead.
Then it was up to Jonathan Papelbon to close it out.
But Papelbon, whose meltdown in the ALDS against the Angels ended the 2009 season, blew his eighth save of 2010, allowing one run on three hits as New York tied the game at 3.
Okajima's walk to Juan Miranda in the 10th sealed Boston's fate.
"We're always going to play hard no matter what, even if we are completely out," Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez said. "If you really love this game, you have to play your best, no matter what.
"Every loss is frustrating. I never see a team having fun when they lose. We just go out there and play hard. Today was a great game, a great ballgame from both sides. Daisuke came out and threw the ball great. He really gave us a great chance to win the ballgame. It was a great game from both sides. Somebody has to lose. That's it."
That's it, indeed.
Unless the baseball gods decide to play a cruel trick on the AL East, the Red Sox will play out their remaining seven games and begin thinking about the 2011 season.
"For us to just come in here and lay down and give them three wins is not our ballclub," Papelbon said. "You know, I mean, we're going to go out there, battle and fight to the end just like everybody did tonight, including myself. It's just the way our ballclub is made."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.