NEW YORK -- What, you thought they weren't going to celebrate?
Craig Kimbrel threw 28 pitches without recording an out in the ninth inning Wednesday night. Joe Kelly gave up the Mark Teixeira grand slam that turned a three-run lead into a 5-3 loss to the New York Yankees. And the Boston Red Sox trudged off the field at Yankee Stadium rather than dogpiling on it even though they clinched the American League East title moments earlier when the Toronto Blue Jays bowed to the Baltimore Orioles.
Awkward? Maybe for a few minutes. But if ever a walk-off loss was utterly insignificant, it was this one. So, once Red Sox players and staff gathered in the clubhouse, plastic covering up the lockers and bubbly chilling nearby, manager John Farrell made sure everyone knew it was appropriate to let loose.
"I told them, don't let one inning take away from what they've done for seven full months," Farrell said. "They're AL East champions, we're AL East champions, and we've got a lot of work left ahead of us. But one inning should not take away from the fact that we're champions."
Translation: Party on.
With that, ski masks and "Made For October" T-shirts were donned. Champagne corks were popped. Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who sprinkled $217 million ace David Price and several role players around the talented homegrown core he inherited last year from former general manager Ben Cherington, kicked off his shoes, literally walking through the clubhouse in his dress socks. Principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner mugged for pictures with Farrell, the embattled manager whose job security was talk-radio fodder after nearly every Red Sox loss.
"It's crazy," said David Ortiz, the retiring franchise icon whose final at-bat will appropriately come in the postseason. "I wanted to celebrate on that field so bad, but it is what it is. We're going to celebrate anyway. I'm going to drown in this, man!"
After sinking to the bottom of the AL East for the previous two seasons, the Red Sox rose to the top on the strength of a juggernaut offense that has scored more runs than any team in the majors. Ortiz had a farewell season for the ages, while 23-year-old right fielder Mookie Betts emerged as the AL MVP frontrunner. First baseman Hanley Ramirez and right-hander Rick Porcello, abject failures last season in their first go-around in Boston, redeemed themselves with 29 home runs and 22 wins, respectively, while Dustin Pedroia stayed healthy and had his most productive season since 2011.
But it wasn't until the past six weeks that Shoeless Dave Dombrowski truly believed his team was special. The Sox tackled a brutal schedule that took them away from Fenway Park for 31 road games in 46 days and survived in large part because young lefty Eduardo Rodriguez came back from a brief exile to Triple-A and right-hander Clay Buchholz from a banishment to the bullpen and brought stability to the back end of the starting rotation.
Buchholz, in particular, thought he was a goner at midseason. The team's longest-tenured pitcher, he didn't have a role in the bullpen and was certain he would be traded. Instead, he held the Yankees to one hit over six scoreless innings Wednesday night and put the Red Sox in position to take a 3-0 lead in the top of the eighth.
"We always thought that at some point the depth you have on the pitching staff was going to be important," Dombrowski said. "He had the big-league ability to do it. Fortunately, we kept him and he's pitched well for us."
For Ortiz, celebrations like this are old hat, not that they ever get old. He has won three World Series titles, all in Boston. And although his teammates have not yet adopted "Win One More For Papi" as their rallying cry, they're about to now that they have achieved their first goal of playing into October.
In fact, in the midst of dousing each other with champagne and beer, several players and Dombrowski made a point of saying they plan on celebrating more often over the next month.
"We want to make sure we send David off the right way," Pedroia said. "Hopefully we do that."
Said Betts: "We're not done yet. We haven't won a World Series. To be here for [Ortiz's] last year is definitely special."
And from Dombrowski: "It's fantastic, but you also know that this is one step. This is great, and you could tell everybody's happy. But we have other goals left to achieve."
Even Henry, the soft-spoken billionaire owner, didn't leave the clubhouse until he made clear how he feels about the Red Sox's chances in October.
"When a team is as effective as this team has been on the road late in the season, you know there's something special," he said. "I feel pretty good. Let's put it this way: Where we are now, I wouldn't want to play us going into the playoffs because this is a really talented team and really tough."
It hardly mattered, then, that the Sox clinched the division title in the strangest way possible. After briefly giving chase of Teixeira's slam, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. was "kind of in shock" as he trotted off the field. Kimbrel stayed on the top step of the dugout for a few minutes and watched the Yankees, whose season almost certainly will end Sunday, pile on Teixeira.
"But as soon as we got in here, we quickly got over it," Bradley said. "We're ecstatic. We're glad to be able to go to the postseason and make some noise."
And for that, they deserved to celebrate.