The Red Sox will go in as the Wild Card entrants, barring a complete collapse by the Tampa Bay Rays over the final five games. But that didn't diminish any of the joy the Red Sox felt after their 5-4 win over the Indians.
From the clubhouse to the field, there was a mix of cigars, goggles, beer, champagne and euphoria. Whether it was the veterans, the rookies or the newcomers, everyone seemed to enjoy the party. And why not?
"We were talking about it earlier in the week," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "Guys were saying, 'If it's not the division, should we celebrate?' I said, 'I always felt down when I was with the Marlins and teams would kind of clinch on us and they kind of went through the motions.' I said, 'We would kill to get in that situation.'"
Though Jonathan Papelbon didn't run on to the Fenway Park sod in boxer shorts and do the Riverdance as he did a year ago, it was still an enjoyable time for the defending World Series champions.
"I think collectively, from veterans like Tim Wakefield to [Jason Varitek] to the young guys, we said, 'If we make the postseason, we celebrate.' This is a time that you celebrate and enjoy what you've been able to accomplish," said Lowell.
Unless the Red Sox finish 5-0 and Tampa Bay goes 1-4, Boston will play the Angels in the Division Series, beginning on either Oct. 1 or 2 at Anaheim.
Getting to that point wasn't easy. There were injuries to several core players, including David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, Lowell and J.D. Drew. There was the midseason meltdown of future Hall of Fame slugger Manny Ramirez, which prompted general manager Theo Epstein to be bold and trade him to the Dodgers in a three-team exchange that netted Jason Bay.
"It's remarkable to be here. We never take it for granted."
-- Red Sox chairman|
"Every team is different," said Epstein. "It's different circumstances. This year, it was a combination of a lot of different types of adversity that we had to overcome. It was a unique challenge. Guys never complained about injuries. Tough schedule? They never complained. The American League East is so tough. They never complained about that. They kept focused and played good baseball all year. I'm proud of our guys."
Principal owner John W. Henry took in the final inning from his front-row box seats, along with president/CEO Larry Lucchino and chairman Tom Werner.
"They're unbelievable," said Henry. "What a great job Theo did this year despite all these injuries to bring in everyone that he brought in. This is another great year for this organization."
As usual, Francona had just the right touch to steer the team through the long grind of the season. And when the ticket to October was punched, Francona and his coaching staff stood behind the first-base foul line and watched the players celebrate. They formed a receiving line of sorts and congratulated each player during the walk back to the dugout.
"We never go on the field," said Francona. "We just let them do their thing. It's their field. They play. It just gives them a chance to celebrate together, and then we can tell them as they come off how much we appreciate them."
While the postseason has become an annual rite of passage for players such as Varitek, Wakefield, Mike Timlin and Ortiz -- who ran on to the field after that last out wearing a ski hat and goggles -- Bay was enjoying it for the first time. So were rookies such as Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson.
"I went out there, and it was just a bunch of grown men hugging each other, jumping," said Bay. "One foot is in the door. We're not totally done yet. Like anything, people can try to explain to you what it's like, but until you go through it yourself, you have no idea."
Though the Red Sox will get back to business, starting with Wednesday night's game with the Indians, they felt it important to stop for a minute and reflect.
"I think the road has actually been a little tougher this year than last year," said Lowell. "We deserve this. It's a great accomplishment."
"It was real special this year because of all the injuries, the trials and tribulations to get to where we're at," said Papelbon. "And all that matters is that you get in. I like our chances now that we're in."
For one night, those chances were something to celebrate.
"It's remarkable to be here," said Werner. "We never take it for granted."