Red Sox complete worst-to-first reversal
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox completed their amazing turnaround from worst to first.
Jon Lester threw seven strong innings for his 100th career victory and Mike Carp had a key two-run single as the Red Sox clinched just their second American League East title since 1995 with a 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night.
Boston's last AL East championship came in 2007 when it went on to win the World Series.
"To have it happen on a night like this is pretty special, but hopefully I've got a lot more to go," said Lester, standing in the middle of the clubhouse with a raucous champagne-filled celebration going on behind him.
One year ago, the Red Sox were at the tail end of a dismal 69-win season, the franchise's worst since 1966 (72-90).
"We filled a roster with a number of quality players we were able to bring in," Boston's first-year manager John Farrell said. "We knew we would be able to compete in spring training. It was just a matter of the pitching. The way this season has come together and playing as a unit the entire season, that's what we're most proud of."
The Red Sox added some new-look, new-attitude "clubhouse guys" and proved that winning without the big names of the past -- Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett -- could be done again quickly.
They traded away the trio late last August to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a salary-dump deal and sent out some of the bad vibes that surrounded this team from the September 2011 collapse through last season.
Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Carp and the rest of this group grabbed first place on Aug. 25 and sprinted to the finish.
And they capped it with their 15th win in 20 games.
"I just wanted to get to my teammates," third baseman Will Middlebrooks said of the final out. "This is one of the goals we set in spring training. A lot more than talk with these guys. They had one goal coming out in spring training and everybody worked together."
This season marked the largest turnaround in the club's history.
"Last year was last year, we've moved on from that." Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "We've worked hard from the get-go. We're not going to stop now. This team's relentless and that's what makes us so good."
Lester (15-8) gave up one run and five hits, striking out eight without walking a batter.
Toronto starter Esmil Rogers (5-8) didn't make it out of the third inning and took the loss.
With Boston leading 2-1 in the seventh, David Ortiz hit a bases-loaded, broken-bat RBI single, Carp had his two-run single and Koji Uehara did the rest with a five-out save for his 20th of the season.
It ended on Brett Lawrie's strikeout, with the crowd chanting "Let's Go Red Sox!" The players then mobbed Uehara on the mound.
"We've been thinking about this for months," Middlebrooks said. "I just wanted to get to my teammates because we all play for each other."
The celebration turned from the clubhouse to the field, where a number of players sprayed fans behind the Red Sox dugout. Ortiz, the hero of the 2004 team that broke the 86-year championship drought for the organization, was bouncing around happily on his way off the field and back into the clubhouse.
"We're going to party," he yelled to anyone nearby.
Adam Lind's pinch-hit, two-run homer off Boston's Junichi Tazawa in the eighth closed the Red Sox lead to 5-3 and made it tight to the end.
"They've got a great team," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "It's a good division, so that speaks volumes about how good they are."
The Red Sox took control early. Carp's bases-loaded walk gave Boston a 2-0 lead in the third.
The Rays cut it 2-1 in the fifth. Rajai Davis had a two-out single, stole consecutive bases (43rd and 44th) and scored on Lawrie's single just over Dustin Pedroia's leap.
Middlebrooks made up for his error in the fourth, turning a double play with the bases loaded and no outs by stepping on the bag on Anthony Gose's hard grounder down the line before firing home. Lester then fanned J.P. Arencibia to end the threat.
"We had our chances," Gibbons said. "That's the key. You've gotta get the key hit."
It was a wild night for Rogers in his shortest outing of the season. He gave up two runs and three hits but walked five -- one intentionally -- uncorked a wild pitch for Boston's first run and threw just 29 of his 60 pitches for strikes in 2 1/3 innings. Chad Jenkins relieved with the bases loaded and one out, getting Saltalamacchia to bounce into a double play.
Boston grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first when Pedroia doubled off the Green Monster, advanced on a deep fly to right and scored on a wild pitch. Boston did have a runner cut down at the plate when Gose nailed Ortiz by a wide margin.
Lester worked out of a first and third, two-out situation in the second when he fanned Arencibia swinging on a 95 mph fastball.
NOTES: Blue Jays CF Colby Rasmus had to leave the game before the bottom of the first when he was hit in the head near the left eye by a ball thrown from the bullpen area while Toronto was warming up in the field. ... Boston OF Shane Victorino missed his second straight game with a jammed right thumb that forced him out of Wednesday's game early. ... The Red Sox opened their final home regular-season series. They have two more games against the Blue Jays before heading to Colorado for games on Tuesday and Wednesday and then a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles starting next weekend. ... Boston RHP Ryan Dempster (8-9, 4.64 ERA) was moved to the bullpen in preparation for Boston cutting down to four starters for the postseason. He hasn't worked out of the pen since 2007. ... Red Sox CF Jacoby Ellsbury, sidelined the last 13 games with a small broken bone in his right foot, started baseball workouts. ... Clay Buchholz (11-0, 1.51 ERA) goes for Boston against Mark Buehrle (11-9, 4.17) on Saturday.