OAKLAND, Calif. Drenched in champagne and relief, several Red Sox players practically floated back onto the field. They basked in delirious cheers from a rowdy band of Boston fans enjoying a celebration they rarely get.
And in the home clubhouse, the Oakland Athletics wondered if they're mired in the early stages of baseball's next great curse.
With enough drama and emotion in the ninth inning to fill several of the books devoted to this franchise's bad luck, Boston completed a thrilling three-game playoff comeback Monday night by beating the A's 4-3 in Game 5 of their AL division series.
After Pedro Martinez's pitching and Manny Ramirez's three-run homer staked the Red Sox to a tenuous lead, starter-turned-reliever Derek Lowe pitched out of a bases-loaded jam to end it.
The celebration didn't stop with the final outs, when Lowe struck out pinch-hitters Adam Melhuse and Terrence Long on called third strikes to finish Boston's fourth playoff series victory since its last World Series title in 1918.
Thousands of fans from every corner of the Coliseum streamed down to the rows behind the Boston bench, and the party was on. The players soon joined them, leading the cheers and shaking hands.
''It's not like anything I've ever felt before,'' Lowe said. ''It's a win for Boston, for the Red Sox nation.''
Boston meets the Yankees, its traditional rival, in the AL championship series starting Wednesday night in New York. For once, good luck was wearing Red Sox in October.
''It feels pretty good, to tell you the truth,'' Boston manager Grady Little said. ''Every single game in this series was outstanding. I think it was nothing short of what people expected, and it was all brought about by some outstanding pitching by both teams.''
While Boston's players doused each other, Oakland's frustration extended to its fourth season. The A's have lost nine straight games in which they could have gained postseason advancement, extending a major league record.
Boston became the seventh team to overcome an 0-2 deficit in a best-of-five playoff series but not many teams played as close to the edge of disaster. The five games were decided by a total of nine runs four in Oakland's Game 2 win.
''These five games, it's like flipping a coin,'' Scott Hatteberg said. ''The whole series was tough. When I look back on things, yeah, I wish they were different.''
Many Oakland players were distraught after the extraordinarily tense series. The A's were four outs from winning Game 4, but they wound up losing the division series for the fourth straight year.
The fans stood, screamed and chanted the name of injured outfielder Johnny Damon late into a gorgeous California night but it wasn't so gorgeous for the Red Sox a few minutes earlier.
Reliever Scott Williamson, making his fifth straight appearance for Boston, led off the inning by walking Hatteberg and Jose Guillen.
Little went to Lowe, the Game 3 starter and Game 1 loser out of the bullpen. This time, Boston's No. 2 starter came through.
After Ramon Hernandez bunted pinch-runner Eric Byrnes and Guillen into scoring position, Lowe threw a called third strike past Melhuse a seldom-used backup catcher who had three hits in Game 4 Sunday.
Lowe then walked Chris Singleton, loading the bases. The A's countered with Long, 2-for-7 in the series.
Long took an inside fastball for another called third strike and the Boston bench and bullpen emptied onto the field in celebration.
''I looked at it, and I thought I had a chance,'' Long said. ''I didn't get the hit. I thought that he would throw something up. I didn't want to swing at a bad pitch.''
Lowe also offended the A's, who accused him of making several obscene gestures toward the dugout after the final strikeout. Miguel Tejada was reduced to screams and tears in the clubhouse, vowing Lowe was ''going to pay'' for it.
Lowe later was apologetic for his exuberance, and Tejada was mollified.
''It's a situation where you won,'' Lowe said. ''I don't even know exactly what I did. If you offended anybody, that's not sportsmanship. If you did do something, you're sorry, because that's not the way you play the game.''
A game that began as a tense duel between former Cy Young Award winners Martinez and Barry Zito became uncommonly emotional in the final innings after a scary injury to Damon, Boston's leadoff hitter and center fielder.
Damon left the field in an ambulance following a frightening head-to-head collision with second baseman Damian Jackson. Both players were converging on Jermaine Dye's fly ball in the seventh.
Jackson shook it off, but Damon was knocked unconscious with a concussion. The game was delayed 10 minutes until Damon, awake and alert, raised his hand to loud cheers from the Coliseum crowd as he was loaded into the ambulance on a stretcher. He was taken to a hospital for evaluation.
Boston already was up 4-1 on Ramirez's sixth-inning homer, punctuated by a showboating walk to first base. Oakland battled back with runs on Tejada's double in the sixth and pinch-hitter Billy McMillon's eighth-inning RBI single, which chased Martinez.
Boston's relief crew got three straight outs in the eighth, but it was all just a prelude to Lowe's season-saving work in the ninth.
The Red Sox will face the Yankees in the playoffs for just the second time, following a 4-1 loss in the 1999 AL championship series. New York won 10 of 19 games against Boston during the regular season, but the Red Sox frequently teed off on Yankees pitchers, outscoring New York 109-94.
The A's won the first two games of a division series dominated by tight games and emotional finishes, but Boston rallied for two dramatic victories at Fenway Park last weekend characterized by key Oakland mistakes in baserunning and fielding.
''This series should have been over on Saturday night (after Game 3),'' Singleton said. ''That's the price we pay for making a few mental mistakes.''
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