Red Sox still control their October fate

Updated: October 1, 2005, 10:57 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- It could have been an epic, pennant-race scene, right out of 1948. Or 1978.

Except, of course, for the fact that Denny Galehouse and Bucky Dent never had to worry about those darned tiebreaker rules.

It was everything you wanted the first Saturday of October, and the last Saturday of the regular season, to be: Yankees and Red Sox. Mano a mano. The old Green Cathedral shaking with drama. The AL East on the line.

Except it wasn't.

Unless it was.

Once upon a time, in a gentler and simpler world, classic three-team pennant races actually unfolded before our eyes. On the field. As poets scribbled notes. And black and white movie cameras rolled, in stunning 8-millimeter.

Nowadays, though, you need to consult your handy-dandy tiebreaker chart to figure out what the heck you just saw.

There's something very wrong about finding yourself watching Mariano Rivera and feeling as if you need to call Paul Tagliabue. But that was the bizarre scene Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, as the Yankees clinched first place in the AL East.

No, not with an 8-4 win over the Red Sox ... but with a bunch of numbers changing on the scoreboard as a game in Cleveland careened toward its stunning conclusion. Whatever it meant.

Well, here is what it did mean, in case you're still confused (which would unite you with 98 percent of the country):

• With one day left in the regular season, the Yankees (95-66) lead the Red Sox (94-67) by one game in the AL East. And the Red Sox lead the Indians (93-68) by one game in the AL wild-card derby. But according to our geometric tiebreaker chart, just reworked by 11 department heads at M.I.T., the Yankees have clinched the East. The Red Sox and Indians, on the other hand, haven't clinched anything.

• So on Sunday, the Red Sox and Yankees will play a 2 p.m. EDT game at Fenway -- a game whose importance had almost nothing to do with what happened Saturday in the same ballpark. Why? Because if the Indians had just won, neither team could have clinched the East on Saturday -- and they would have been playing Sunday either for the division or to force a tiebreaker playoff game Monday.

• But because the Indians lost, the AL East race became irrelevant -- and only the wild card was still alive to be decided Sunday. That, you see, was because there could no longer be any more three-team ties -- just two-team ties. And according to the rules of baseball, which are not to be confused with any rules ever devised by Kennesaw Mountain Landis, two-team ties are only broken on the field if they determine whether teams make the playoffs -- but not if both teams know they're in, even if they're tied for first place.

• So here's what's up Sunday: If the Red Sox win, they're the wild-card team. If they lose, they're still in if Cleveland loses. If they lose and Cleveland wins, there's a play-in game Monday at Fenway.

Got all that? No, huh? Well, we could go on for a few thousand more paragraphs, and try to explain why it all works this way. But we're assuming your brain already exploded a few minutes ago, when we tried to lay out what we've already detailed.

If it makes you feel better, though, you should know this: The Red Sox didn't even know they'd lost the division Saturday until after they'd already lost it.

Seriously.

They did notice the Yankees hugging each other on the mound after the final out. But even that didn't tip off some of them.

"I didn't really see that much of a celebration," said Red Sox pitcher Matt Clement. "I knew they were doing some hugging out there. But it wasn't like a big pile-on on the mound or anything."

So a lot of Red Sox trudged back up to their clubhouse, thinking they still had another Yankees-Sox extravaganza scheduled for Sunday to force a tie and a playoff Monday. Why not? That would have seemed almost, well, logical.

But when they got to that clubhouse, they heard the shocking news from a few players who had gotten the word, apparently because they had impeccable sources at MLB -- or possibly M.I.T.

"I was actually talking to Curt [Schilling] about it," said David Ortiz, "because there were a lot of scenarios. I knew that whoever won today was going to be ahead. But I didn't know that whoever won today could clinch the division. But Curt broke it down for me. He knew."

Of course he knew. If there was one man on earth who would have known, it would have been Curt Schilling (who, by the way, will only be starting The Biggest Game Of His Entire Life, Bloody Sock Games Excluded, Sunday). Heck, Bud Selig probably consulted with him before they drew up the rule.

"I don't think anybody really knew the rules until a few minutes ago," Kevin Millar said. "It's crazy because the rules have changed. It used to be if there was a three-way tie and Cleveland had the same record, they were in and we would have had to play. But then they changed that one. Then I think there was a coin flip, and we lost the coin toss, so the loser had to play the playoff game and the other team played the winner. But then ..."

Millar glanced around at that point. His eyes seemed glazed. Everyone listening looked just as perplexed as he was.

"I don't know, man," he said. "The main thing is, we have to find a way to win a game tomorrow."

Hey, good idea. The Yankees, on the other hand, apparently don't need to find a way to win any more games -- until the playoffs start Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or whenever it is MLB figures that out.

At least the Yankees did know they had to win Saturday. Or that, at the very least, it was going to be really, really helpful to win Saturday.

Best we can tell, though, only one Yankee knew when he showed up Saturday that they had a chance to clinch.

And that, of course, was a gentleman named Derek Jeter. Who else? You were expecting maybe Andy Phillips?

Jeter, naturally, was the first Yankee to start jumping up and down Saturday when Johnny Damon hit a chopper back to the mound that was about to become the final out of this game. That should have been the first tip-off.

But being the dogged reporters we are, we had to make sure. So we asked Jeter which genius in the clubhouse had figured out they were going to clinch if the Indians lost and Damon's ground ball turned into an out.

"I did," he confessed. "I was pretty good at math, you know. Central High. Kalamazoo."

Jeter said he began computing all this in his head Friday night after his team lost to his old amigo, David Wells. And the more he thought about it, the more he decided it was "actually pretty simple," he said.

So there you go. It's actually pretty simple. If you're Derek Jeter. Or if you once got an 800 on the math portion of the S.A.T. test.

One Yankee who wasn't aware of how simple it was, however, was that 6-foot-9 left-hander who pitched the Yankees to this win -- Mr. Randy Johnson.

"I had no idea we could clinch," the Unit confessed, after going 7 1/3, five-hit, three-run innings. "I didn't do that math."

It wasn't until after he'd left the game, as he was getting an ice pack strapped to his left shoulder, that he was informed of this development by the Yankees' other resident genius -- "that Stanford grad over there (i.e., Mike Mussina)," Johnson said.

But Mussina apparently got the news from Jeter, who informed a bunch of teammates after he strolled into the park Saturday. So how come, the shortstop was asked, didn't Johnson know?

"We didn't want him to know," Jeter laughed.

It was all kind of amusing, we suppose. But hold on a second. Randy Johnson undoubtedly dreamed all season of being the man who pitched the Yankees to their eighth straight first-place finish. So wouldn't his dream have included actually knowing he was doing that while he was doing that?

"Well, sure," Johnson said. "But hopefully, there will be many more games for me to pitch, and there may be more opportunities for me. The biggest reason I came here was to win the World Series. And now, I think, we're going in that direction."

Well, it's a lot easier to go in that direction when you've just finished in first place. Which the Yankees did, even though they spent only nine days in sole possession of first all season.

But it was fitting that the Unit was the man who finally pitched them to the top of that mountain -- because that, said Millar, "is why they got him."

Yes, they got him for games just like this, all right. And Johnson, for all his struggles this year, was up to these kinds of games.

He finished the season 5-0, with a 3.40 ERA, versus the Red Sox. Which made him the first Yankees pitcher to beat the hated Bostoninans five times in one season since Stan Bahnsen in 1968.

But now, on Sunday, the Yankees have to face the other half of that old Arizona tag team -- Schilling, whose own season just had to come down to one final dramatic Save The Season game. Against the same Vader-esque rivals he socked it to last October.

"This," said Damon, "is why we have Curt -- and why we don't have Pedro [Martinez] anymore -- because we have an ace in Curt here. Curt knows he's got to pitch like an ace tomorrow. And I think he's going to pitch very well."

"I talked to Curt a little," Ortiz reported. "And I can see his confidence."

So that, friends, is what six months of baseball have come down to -- Curt Schilling and his confidence versus the Yankees versus the Scoreboard.

Can a guy actually pitch against a team playing in Ohio when the mound he's standing on is in Massachusetts? Uh, only in baseball. It may seem a little weird for a while -- but at least it's slightly less weird than what went on out there Saturday.

"Before the game, there were like 19 scenarios," Clement said. "At least now we're just down to a couple."

Right. And at least we know the Yankees -- who even scratched Mussina from his start and replaced him with Jaret Wright -- have nothing to play for now. Or, wait, maybe they do.

If you think this through some more, you realize the Angels went into their game Saturday night with a chance to tie the Yankees if New York were to lose Sunday. And then, yet more tiebreaker rules would apply.

So it seemed at least mathematically possible that the Angels could steal home-field advantage from the Yanks in the first round.

Or could they?

Even Jeter said he wasn't up for figuring out that one.

"I said I was good at math -- but not today," he chuckled. "The champagne messed me up."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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