Dice-K, Papi put Sox on the cusp

Dice-K, Papi put Sox on cusp of playoffs

TORONTO -- The champagne can officially be put on ice. The only question now is: When will the Red Sox be able to toast their fifth postseason berth in the last six years?

After wrapping up a 3-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Sunday afternoon in the rubber match of a three-game series, the Red Sox's magic number was down to one.

The Red Sox can make it zero on Monday night at Fenway if they can beat the Indians in the opener of a seven-game homestand.

If the Yankees had lost to the Orioles in the final game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night, the Sox would have clinched a postseason berth while not on the field, and perhaps not even in the company of each other.

The Red Sox spent Sunday night traveling home from Toronto, and most of the players were planning on retreating to their collective homes after being on the road for the last week.

So New York's win allowed Boston to avoid what would have been a most awkward clinch circumstance.

Now, all the Red Sox have to do is win any of their remaining seven games or have the Yankees lose once. New York is idle on Monday.

Boston also remains in the mix for the American League East title, trailing Tampa Bay by 1 1/2 games.

"It's nice," said Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. "That's what you play for. You play for the playoffs. That's our goal from the get-go, to get to the playoffs. Hopefully we'll get back to the World Series. It's been nice to come on strong at the end."

It was Daisuke Matsuzaka who put the Red Sox on the precipice of a clinch party, firing seven dazzling innings to improve to 18-2 on the season. In one of his crispest outings of the season, Matsuzaka yielded just two hits, walking two, striking out six and throwing 109 pitches.

"For the past little while, I haven't been at my best," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "Today, I was helped out by some good fielding behind me. I made some careful pitches and I was able to get through it."

While Matsuzaka was modest in victory, catcher Jason Varitek lauded the right-hander's performance.

"He was phenomenal," Varitek said. "That's not an easy lineup to face. He was able to move the ball in and out, used the breaking ball to both sides, set it up with his heater. He did an awesome job today."

Once Matsuzaka departed, Hideki Okajima (one flawless inning) and Jonathan Papelbon (one inning, one hit) took it home. For Papelbon, it was save No. 40, marking the first time the fireballer has reached that milestone in his career.

"It's a good number," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's a number that's an even number. Whether he had 39 or 41, he's done a great job."

Ellsbury, with a triple and two doubles, did his part, as did David Ortiz, who supported the cause with a two-run homer.

In fact, Ellsbury has been red-hot of late, extending his hitting streak to 12 games.

"I've been feeling a lot more comfortable at the plate, making necessary adjustments, but at the same time, not overanalyzing," Ellsbury said. "When you start thinking too much, it takes away from your natural talent. It's a fine line but I think I've been doing a better job of late."

Ellsbury got the Red Sox off to a promising start, leading off the game with a triple to right-center. Dustin Pedroia drove him right in with a sacrifice fly.

"If you're at the top of the order, if you're on base like that, it certainly bodes well for the rest of our lineup," said Francona.

Again, it was Ellsbury who got things started in the third, this time with a double. With two out, Ortiz smashed a two-run homer to the opposite field in left against Jays starter Scott Richmond, giving Matsuzaka and the Red Sox a 3-0 lead.

"That's one of the best hitters in the game right there -- I just threw him a 3-1 changeup well located there, and then I threw it 3-2 and it was off the plate about six inches, and he still got it," Richmond said. "I didn't think it was going to leave, to be honest with you. I thought it was going to be a pop fly. Obviously, he's got a lot of power."

The rest of the contest was uneventful. It was about one team closing in on an invitation to the postseason while the other -- the Blue Jays -- were officially eliminated.

"We don't take anything for granted -- we never have," Francona said. "We played a pretty good game today, and we'll show up tomorrow, and if we play good and do all our stuff, those magic numbers will take care of themselves and then we'll figure it out from there."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.