Lackey provides fitting push into playoffs

BOSTON -- Some teams have all the fun. Like the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the National League West on Thursday afternoon in Arizona and celebrated by jumping into the Diamondbacks’ pool, which hardly endeared them to the locals.

“I could call it disrespectful and classless,” Diamondbacks president and CEO Derrick Hall, a former Dodgers employee, said via email, “but they don't have a beautiful pool at their old park and must have really wanted to see what one was like.”

On Thursday night, the Red Sox clinched a spot in the playoffs, too, beating the Baltimore Orioles 3-1, and did it at home, so they weren’t at risk of offending anyone had they also elected to make a splash. Remember the Sox running down to various local watering holes and commandeering the taps when they made the playoffs in 2003?

The challenge for the Sox, had they been interested in a communal dip after John Lackey’s complete-game two-hitter, would have been finding a suitable place for a dunking. The local Howard Johnson’s, behind the first-base grandstand, used to have a pool, but the clerk working the front desk said the chain got rid of it a couple of years ago. They could have had a private splash party -- there’s a lap pool in the exercise area above the clubhouse at Fenway -- but then no one would have been able to share in the hilarity, which is the point, isn’t it?

There are other ways to get soaked during a celebration -- champagne spraying comes to mind -- but these Sox remain intent on loftier goals than merely qualifying for the postseason tournament. There is still a division title to be won, and Thursday night's victory potentially put the Sox a night away from a bona fide, no-holds-barred, hide-the-women-and-children celebration Friday night.

“I mean, it’s not over," said Stephen Drew, the Sox shortstop who hit a two-run home run in the second, when the Sox scored all of their runs against Chris Tillman, a Boston nemesis. “We’ve still got games to play, and it’s huge to clinch a spot -- we’re not saying that [it isn’t]. It’s always huge to get in there, but hopefully in the next three days or so, whatever it takes to finally clinch the division, that’s what we want."

The Tampa Bay Rays lost at home 8-2 to the Texas Rangers on Thursday night, reducing the Sox's magic number to 1 to clinch their first AL East title since 2007. A Sox win or Rays loss settles the matter. The Sox's opponent Friday night? The Toronto Blue Jays, the team that employed John Farrell as manager the previous two years.

“We know where we’re at," Farrell said. “We know what was pending. We still feel like the next step is a more important one than this. We said a few times winning the East, that’s been a stated goal since spring training, that’s getting closer, and I think that will be a little more realization of where we’ve come from and where we are, at that moment."

But Farrell acknowledged there was some symmetry in Lackey, scorned from the outside as an overpaid acquisition through his first three years in Boston (which included the lost year of 2012 while he recovered from Tommy John surgery), being the one to send the Sox into the postseason.

“The remake of John Lackey, both physically and getting back on the mound and performing as he’s done all year, mirrors that of this team," Farrell said. “It’s been a remake, and it’s somewhat fitting that to clinch a spot to get into the playoffs with him on the mound, and to go nine innings the way he did -- like I said, was very fitting."

The Sox had lost the past two nights against the Orioles, who are fighting to stay alive in the wild-card race, but Lackey didn’t give them a chance Thursday. Pumping fastballs and sliders almost exclusively, Lackey took a no-hitter into the seventh, when Adam Jones crushed a hanging cutter onto Landsdowne Street for a home run with one out.

The Sox right-hander allowed just one more hit, a one-out single to right by J.J. Hardy in the eighth, and retired Jones on a fly ball to right for the game’s final out as a crowd of 36,436 chanted his name.

Lackey fell back on an old pitcher’s deceit, claiming the no-hitter occupied no place in the space beneath his cap. He’s never had one in the big leagues; he took one into the ninth inning against the Red Sox in Fenway Park on July 29, 2008, until Dustin Pedroia singled with one out and Kevin Youkilis followed with a home run.

“I just wanted to win the game," Lackey, then with the Angels, said that day. “The no-hitter would have been nice. Whatever. But we’re about winning games."

Fast-forward to Thursday night, and you heard an echo.

“Just trying to win a game," said Lackey, dismissing thoughts of a no-no while commending his catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia for calling “a great game, as usual."

“Can’t get too far ahead of yourself."

The Sox had only one hit -- Drew’s triple in the sixth -- over the final 5 1/3 innings, but Drew’s two-run homer, a double by rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. and an RBI single by Pedroia accounted for three runs in the Sox second.

“We were able to bunch some hits together," Farrell said in explaining the team’s relative success against Tillman, who still hasn’t allowed them more than three earned runs in a start since June 4, 2010, and lost for the first time in five starts at Fenway Park.

“He left his curveball up in the zone a couple of times. Bradley with the double the opposite way in the corner. Stephen, opposite-field home run. We didn’t miss pitches when they were up in the strike zone."

The Red Sox won 69 games and lost 93 last season. They hadn’t lost 90 or more games since 1966, which they followed a year later with “The Impossible Dream" pennant run.

Thursday night’s victory gave the Red Sox 93 wins, a one-year reversal that is the biggest since Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr came back from war and the Sox won 104 games in 1946 after winning just 71 the year before.

Impossible? The season began as a white canvas. A blank page, full of possibilities, as a great composer once wrote. For these Red Sox, on the cusp of October, the possibilities are still without end.

Kyle Brasseur of ESPNBoston.com contributed to this report.