NEW YORK — It came to this: A tumultuous 243 days after they began to gather for spring training, the Red Sox Wednesday night had a chance to change history.
Placing their faith in Derek Lowe, whose days in Boston almost certainly are numbered after the season, the Sox were trying to complete the greatest comeback in the annals of professional baseball. All they needed was one more victory over the Yankees to become the first team in the sport's history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games.
And the Sox delivered, clinching their 11th American League pennant — and first since 1986 — by surging to an 8-1 lead through four innings on three home runs, a two-run shot by David Ortiz off Kevin Brown in the first inning, a grand slam by Johnny Damon off Javier Vazquez in the second, and a two-run job by Damon off Vazquez in the fourth, en route to a 10-3 victory over the stunned Yankees.
The Sox advanced to the 100th World Series, which opens Saturday at Fenway Park against the survivor of a do-or-die Game 7 Thursday night between the Astros and Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
The Sox, who staved off elimination three straight nights while champagne chilled in the Yankee clubhouse, beat the Pinstripers for a fourth time in four days for the first time since June 4-7, 1990, when Lowe was in high school.
Lowe, pitching on two days' rest after he helped to fuel the amazing comeback effort by starting the Game 4 victory, allowed the Yankees only one run on a single and a walk through six innings before giving way to Pedro Martinez, who allowed a pair of runs in the seventh. Mike Timlin pitched a perfect eighth, got two outs in the ninth, and Alan Embree retired pinch hitter Ruben Sierra on a grounder to second to end it.
But Damon's reversal of fortune may have been even more startling than Lowe's. He entered the game batting .103 with one RBI in the first six games of the series. But nearly four months after he took Vazquez deep twice in a game in the Bronx June 29, he struck again for a pair of big home runs when the Sox needed them most.
The Yankees, who were 0-12 in postseason series after losing three straight games, pulled out all the stops to try to halt their skid, even enlisting Bucky "Bleeping" Dent to toss a ceremonial first pitch in their rematch of last year's memorable seven-game showdown between the archrivals. It didn't work. The Sox became the first of 26 teams in postseason history to prevail in a seven-game series after trailing, 3-0.
The Sox ownership team of John W. Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino watched the winner-take-all finale from a box next to the team's dugout while Terry Francona's crew avenged some of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history to the Yankees. Those defeats included Game 7 last year, the 1978 playoff game for the division title that turned on Dent's home run, and a pair of games in 1949 when the Sox needed to win only one to clinch the pennant.
The Sox seized the lead Wednesday night by hammering Brown for five runs in just 1 1/3 innings and Vazquez for three runs over two.
The game appeared to take a bleak turn for the Sox within minutes of the first pitch, which was pushed back to 8:30 p.m. by Fox to accommodate its broadcast schedule. After Damon singled leading off the first inning — only his fourth hit in seven games — he stole second while Brown was busy striking out Mark Bellhorn. But when Manny Ramirez grounded a one-out single to left, third base coach Dale Sveum waved Damon home, where Jorge Posada was waiting with the tag after taking Derek Jeter's relay from Hideki Matsui.
But no sooner did Damon pick himself up and dust himself off than Ortiz picked up Sveum by belting the next pitch from Brown (an 88-mile-per-hour fastball) into the right-field stands for a two-run shot, his third homer of the series and fourth of the postseason.
Lowe took the 2-0 lead and ran with it, retiring the Yankees in order quickly in the first to give the Sox another shot at Brown.
Kevin Millar, for the second straight night, started a big rally, this time lining a one-out single up the middle. Brown then did the Yankees no favors by issuing consecutive walks to Bill Mueller and Orlando Cabrera to load the bases for Damon, who was homerless in the postseason.
No longer. With Brown gone after his brief run of ineffectiveness, the Yankees summoned Vazquez, the former Expo the Sox had coveted in recent years. They liked Vazquez even more after Damon jolted the Empire by drilling Vazquez's first pitch into the right-field seats for the grand slam.
Damon's slam, which put the Sox up, 6-0, was only the second in postseason history for the Sox. Troy O'Leary hit the first in Game 5 of the 1999 Division Series against the Indians in Cleveland.
Lowe responded by holding the Yankees scoreless in the bottom of the second, allowing only a harmless two-out walk to Posada.