BALTIMORE -- The season could have all but slipped away for the Red Sox on Tuesday night at Camden Yards. But Jonathan Papelbon was the last line of defense, and he simply wasn't going to let it.
Sure, the closer created some anxious moments in the bottom of the ninth. But when it counted, he made the pitches he had to. And the Red Sox held on for dear life yet again, escaping with an 8-7 victory over the Orioles.
There is one game left in the regular season, and Boston remains tied with the Tampa Bay Rays at the top of the American League Wild Card standings.
If both teams win on Wednesday, there will be a one-game playoff at Tropicana Field on Thursday at 4:07 p.m. ET. Ditto if both teams lose.
"That's just the way the season is going to be," Papelbon said. "That's just the way it's going to be throughout the postseason. That's the way tomorrow is going to be. That's the way the final game against Tampa is going to be, because I expect Tampa to win and I expect us to win tomorrow. It's the way it's going to be from here on out. Everyone in the clubhouse has to accept it and keep grinding."
A Red Sox win at Baltimore and a Rays loss at home to the Yankees puts Boston in the AL Division Series against either Texas or Detroit. A Boston loss and a Rays' win would send the Red Sox home and make them the first team to blow a lead of 10 games in the Wild Card standings.
The fact that the Sox are 7-19 in September isn't something they waste time thinking about. It comes down to having to win to survive, beginning on Wednesday.
"It's going to be fun," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "It's exciting. Everyone is excited about it. Just show up tomorrow and play for something. A lot of teams don't get the opportunity to do that, and we're doing it. We're going to come out and play our butts off."
The situation -- much like the bottom of the ninth Papelbon escaped from -- is filled with drama.
"I think it's really good for baseball," said manager Terry Francona. "Not so good for my stomach. It's exciting. If you don't want to show up tomorrow and play, you've got no pulse. My goodness. I can't remember being that nervous in a long time. [I'll] go back to the hotel and not sleep and show up tomorrow and see what we can do."
Before Papelbon put out one final fire and ensured that the Red Sox could still control their own destiny, a September callup emerged as a hero.
Ryan Lavarnway, thrust into the lineup on a night both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek were banged up, belted the first two homers of his career and had four RBIs. He also threw a runner out trying to steal third, and in the ninth, made a pivotal throw to first on a tapper.
"The kid showed a tremendous amount of poise," said Papelbon. "He was able to slow the game down in a big situation. Not only that, he hit big home runs for us tonight. Wow. Impressive night for him, from top to bottom."
After Lavarnway's second homer, a leadoff shot in the eighth, the Sox had an 8-4 lead.
But Daniel Bard's tough September continued, as he gave up a pair of big two-out hits -- an RBI single to Chris Davis and an RBI triple by Nolan Reimold.
Then it was Papelbon's turn in the ninth, and the Red Sox always feel good when the game is in his hands.
His 31st save of the season was not only his most important, but one of his toughest.
With the Sox up by two, J.J. Hardy opened the ninth with a single. Then, things got really tense. Nick Markakis worked Papelbon for an 11-pitch at-bat, before finally tapping out to first. Vladimir Guerrero ripped a single into left, and the Orioles had runners at the corners with one out.
Then came a slow roller off the bat of Matt Wieters that could have turned into a big problem. It was between Papelbon and Lavarnway, and the catcher picked it up and fired to first, just getting Wieters. A run scored and the lead was down to one.
"I was going after it, and I looked at Pap to see if he was going to get it or not. The look he gave me was, 'You'd better field this ball.' I went after it, and I kind of tripped as I was throwing a little bit, but I got the ball to first base," said Lavarnway.
The dangerous Adam Jones, who had already homered, was next. Jones was just as tough as Markakis, working the at-bat to 10 pitches. But Papelbon finished him with a slider, resulting in a groundout to third to end it.
While fans throughout New England -- and all across Red Sox Nation -- were biting their nails off, Papelbon was reveling in the competition.
"I don't know if you could see out there, but there was a couple of times I had kind of a little grin on my face," Papelbon said. "I enjoy that. That's baseball, man. It doesn't get any better than that. I was having fun. I enjoy that. That's what it's all about."
This was one of those nights where a lot of people stepped up. Alfredo Aceves came out of the bullpen and gave the Sox 3 2/3 big innings, allowing three hits and a run. This was crucial considering lefty starter Erik Bedard lasted just 3 1/3 innings.
"He has done it time and time again," said Francona. "He's so valuable doing what he's doing. We thought about leaving him in, letting him run it out. But I think because he's so resilient, I think we'll have him -- in fact, I know we'll have him tomorrow. Chances are, we'll probably need him."
At this point, it is all hands on deck.
The one guy who keeps coming through is Jacoby Ellsbury, who rattled a two-run homer, his 32nd of the season, to give Boston its first lead at 2-1 in the top of the third. In fact, the Sox never trailed after that.
David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez got things going in the fourth, ripping singles to right. With one out, Lavarnway unloaded for a three-run homer to left.
"We didn't have a lot on him [scouting-wise], so you just kind of learn him that first at-bat," said O's lefty Zach Britton. "When he hit that home run, again, a good situation, 3-2, like I said, I don't know much about him, so I'm going to go after him with a fastball. And I just left it up. And he put a good swing."
Up 5-1, Bedard allowed the Orioles to get right back into it, serving up a two-run homer to Wieters.
But the Red Sox stayed at it offensively. Carl Crawford drilled a one-out triple and Marco Scutaro smashed a two-run homer to left, opening the lead back to four runs.
Jones ripped a solo shot to center in the bottom of the sixth to make it 7-4.
Lavarnway's insurance blast in the eighth could have made for a stressful ending. But that wouldn't befit the way things have gone of late.
"It's fun," Papelbon said. "I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the competition, man. That's what it's about. I'm ready to go."