It was a win to celebrate, for sure. In clinching a ticket to October, the Red Sox showed the type of resilience they hope will resurface many times again during the postseason.
Instead of getting demoralized when Carlos Pena's second homer of the night -- and 42nd of the season -- turned a two-run lead into a one-run deficit in the seventh inning, the Red Sox answered by coming back with three runs in the top of the ninth en route to their 92nd victory of the season.
There were two huge hits by the Red Sox in the top of the ninth. The first was an equalizing solo shot by Jason Varitek that led off the inning.
"I think he wills himself to be a winner," Francona said of the captain. "I actually think he can do that. Certain people have that ability, when it comes down to it, when the game is on the line. I hate to say it, I think [Derek] Jeter does it. I think 'Tek's in that same boat."
And after Eric Hinske kept the rally going with a double, the second big knock was a go-ahead two-run homer to left by former Ray Julio Lugo. Both long balls came against Tampa Bay closer Al Reyes.
"Man, I felt like David Ortiz running around the bases," said Lugo. "It's nice just to be able to do something to win and to make sure we make it to the playoffs. It's a relief for us. The most important thing is to get in."
When the Tigers lost to the Royals earlier in the night, all the Sox needed to become the first team in the Majors to solidify a spot in the postseason was to get a victory. It didn't come easy, but Boston got the job done.
The Red Sox also maintained their 2 1/2-game lead in the American League East and reduced their magic number for clinching their first division title since 1995 to six.
"Tonight is just kind of a beginning of us getting back on top of things and getting out of that little rut we just went in," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "Teams are going to slump. Now we're back on top. I hopefully believe we can take a little bit of momentum into this postseason."
After the dramatics in the top of the ninth, it was Papelbon who worked a 1-2-3 ninth to secure the October ticket.
"The whole goal is to get into the playoffs, and we go back out tomorrow and go out there and go accomplish the next goal in sight," Papelbon said. "That's what our approach is, that's what our plan is. That's what we're going to do."
As for Saturday's game, Daisuke Matsuzaka was in line to earn win No. 15 when he walked off the mound with two on and two outs in the seventh, in possession of a 5-3 lead. But Pena changed that by belting Javier Lopez's 3-2 offering well over the wall in right.
"Of course, going into the game, I knew it was a situation where we could clinch a playoff berth," said Matsuzaka through translator Masa Hoshino. "So there would have been nothing greater than getting the win and being the winning pitcher on the night that we clinched. Now that I'm at this point and looking at the situation, I'm pretty happy that we were able to make the playoffs and I'm excited to move forward."
Matsuzaka went 6 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and five runs. Two of the three walks Matsuzaka issued were to the final two batters he faced. The right-hander struck out seven.
"He battles so hard," said Francona. "The way the game turned, it was kind of a shame. He goes out in the seventh, and I think he threw three pitches and got two outs. Then when he walks [Jorge] Velandia, Carlos Pena is standing up there looking like he's about 6-foot-8. Javy got ahead 0-2, just like he's supposed to. The more pitches you throw him, just like all good hitters, the more dangerous they become."
Another big factor in the win was J.D. Drew, who belted an RBI double to left-center and roped a two-run homer to right. Though Drew has had a disappointing season -- .263, 10 homers, 56 RBIs -- perhaps this was a sign he can get hot at just the right time.
"Again, if he wants to get hot, we'd love nothing more than to jump on his shoulders for a while," Francona said.
The Red Sox staked Matsuzaka to a 3-0 lead with one in the third and two in the fourth. The Rays, however, chipped into the deficit with two runs in the bottom of the fourth. Pena continued his monster season with a solo homer to right. With one out, Delmon Young singled and stole second. Greg Norton then came through with an RBI single up the middle and the Rays were suddenly down just a run.
But led by the resurgent Drew, the Red Sox spread it back out in the sixth. With Mike Lowell aboard and one out, Drew smoked a two-run homer to right for a 5-2 lead.
Norton sliced it to 5-3 with a two-out RBI single up the middle in the bottom of the sixth. But the game still had some swaying momentum left in it. Fortunately for the Red Sox, they got the last laugh.
After missing the playoffs a year ago, the Red Sox will play meaningful games in October for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
"It's not like we expect to go to the playoffs every year, but we have a good team and people pretty much expected us to go to the playoffs," said Ortiz. "I think we're going to keep playing like that in the last seven games we have and celebrate bigger."