- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

BOSTON — It was not their best season. And this is certainly not the biggest title for a franchise that has 26 World Series championships in its illustrious past.

Yet somewhere in the spray of champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park yesterday was the satisfaction that these Yankees came further to win the AL East championship than any New York team since Bucky Dent popped one into the net here in 1978.

“I can’t take my glasses off. I’m crying like a baby,” manager Joe Torre said on the field after New York beat Boston 8-4 to clinch the division for the eighth consecutive year.

“This was the best of all of them,” he added in the clubhouse. “The first is always memorable. But this has to be the most special because of everything that went on this year.”

Randy Johnson won his sixth straight decision and the Yankees scorched Tim Wakefield for three homers — from Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield — to win for the 16th time in 20 games. Mariano Rivera finished up, gloving Johnny Damon’s high-chopper and throwing to first baseman Tino Martinez to set off a restrained on-field celebration.

Once inside the clubhouse, the Yankees sprayed champagne that dripped from the brims of the newest AL East champion hats in their collection. For stalwarts like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, it is No.8; for Robinson Cano, Aaron Small, Chien-Ming Wang and Shawn Chacon, it is a first.

“I have been fortunate to be a part of this three times,” Johnson said of his time with the Mariners and Diamondbacks. “But you could see a lot of new kids in here that haven’t experienced this.”

Mike Mussina taped up plastic in the clubhouse to protect the Yankees’ lockers. It’s his only responsibility in Boston since he won’t be needed in the regular-season finale. Instead, he will pitch Game1 of the playoffs on Tuesday against Chicago, Cleveland or the Los Angeles Angels.

Through a quirk in baseball’s rules, the Yankees (95-66) won the division because of Cleveland’s loss to Chicago in the AL Central. The loss by the Indians (93-68) eliminated the possibility of a three-way tie — and an unprecedented two-game, three-team tiebreaker — and gave New York the East by virtue of their 10-8 record against Boston (94-67).

Small watched in the clubhouse and relayed the Indians’ score to the dugout.

“He wins 10 games and gives you the final score, too,” Torre joked with one of his coaches. “How much better can it get?”

The Red Sox finished second in the division for the eighth straight year, but it’s not all bad news for them.

Their magic number to clinch the AL wild-card berth is one, meaning the defending World Series champions can do no worse than a tie — news that got a medium-sized cheer when it was announced on the Fenway scoreboard.

If Boston loses today and Cleveland wins, they will meet at Fenway Park on tomorrow to decide the AL’s last playoff berth.

“It’s the most unique situation you will see,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “What are the odds of us watching the Yankees celebrate and we’re coming into the clubhouse as excited as you can be about playing the game tomorrow.”

Curt Schilling (7-8) is scheduled to go against Jaret Wright (5-4) today at Fenway. If the Red Sox have a one-game playoff against Cleveland, Matt Clement (13-6) would pitch on three days’ rest.

Johnson (17-8) allowed three runs, five hits and three walks, striking out eight in 71/3 innings. He walked Damon in the first before Manny Ramirez homered — his first of two homers on the day. The 6-foot-10 left-hander walked a pair in the second, glaring at plate umpire Gary Darling when the calls didn’t go his way.

But Johnson retired 16 of his last 18 batters after David Ortiz doubled to start the third. Only Tony Graffanino, who had three hits including a homer, seemed to solve the five-time Cy Young Award winner, acquired during the offseason to anchor their $67million rotation.

That staff quickly disintegrated with injuries and ineffectiveness, but Johnson did exactly what he was brought in to do, going 5-0 against Boston. Unexpected contributions from Small (10-0), Chacon (7-3), Wang (8-5) and Al Leiter (4-5) kept the team in the race after an 11-19 start — the Yankees’ worst since 1966 — that put them nine games off the division lead.

New York trailed Boston by 5 games on the morning of Aug.11 before going 35-12 the rest of the way. Johnson was a big reason why, going 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA in eight starts since Aug.21. With New York down by four games on Sept.11, he beat Wakefield 1-0 to start the final push.

“Every game out was like a bigger game for him,” Jeter said, “and he got better and better.”

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