Tantalizing, then, to think how Wednesday's game No. 162 might go.
"The whole game is probably going to feel like the ninth inning of this game," said Sox outfielder Carl Crawford on Tuesday, after Jonathan Papelbon closed out a 28-pitch save with the tying run at second. "Just got to be ready for it."
The Sox and Rays have made it through 161 games only to have the same record, tied in the American League Wild Card standings. Taking on the Orioles at Camden Yards on Wednesday while the Yankees play the Rays in St. Petersburg, the Red Sox turn to their Opening Day starter on three days' rest Wednesday, left-hander Jon Lester (15-9, 3.49 ERA).
Right-hander Alfredo Simon (4-9, 4.85 ERA) goes for the O's.
A win for the Red Sox on Wednesday, and at worst, they play a one-game tie-breaker with the Rays in St. Petersburg on Thursday. At best -- if the Rays lose -- the Red Sox clinch the Wild Card.
If Boston loses, its only hope for its season to be extended is if Tampa Bay stumbles, too. With no obligation, the Orioles are playing like they're in this pennant race -- and even if it's not something they want to discuss too thoroughly.
"We've got the chance to compete tomorrow, and I think with very few exceptions, you've got a lot of people looking forward to tomorrow instead of some sense of finality, even though it is," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I know we're not as a coaching staff reveling in [playing spoiler]. ... I like the experience of them gaining some confidence, of seeing a team that talented and put together with resources like theirs, it's still just a small separator."
"It's easy to play really hard and gutsy when you've got nothing to lose, which they don't," said Sox reliever Daniel Bard. "They're a talented team, and this is how it comes out, when there's no pressure."
There's all sorts of pressure for Lester. The lefty hasn't been strong lately, losing three straight outings and allowing a combined 16 runs in 13 2/3 innings, and he's on short rest.
Lester threw just 55 pitches Saturday against the Yankees, meaning he's about as fresh as someone on three days' rest can be.
"He's been doing a lot of flat ground, and he's playing catch," manager Terry Francona said Tuesday. "But at this point in the season, there's not a ton of bullpen sessions, besides a touch and feel, anyway. He's just got to get back to, when he gets behind in the count, having that conviction in his pitches. He's awesome at that.
"I just think when he's gotten behind in the count, it's just that little finish that comes with confidence and your ability to know you're going to execute a pitch."
Lester's done very well lifetime against the O's, going 14-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 17 starts. In nine starts at Camden Yards, his ERA is 2.47.
"He's had some no-decisions where he didn't pitch particularly good here either," noted Showalter.
As for Simon, he's coming off eight innings of three-run ball against the Tigers his last time out, a no-decision that left Detroit raving.
"I'll just say this: If they pitch like their starter pitched tonight, they'll be winning 90 games," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland after Detroit won, 4-3. "[Baltimore] is a very good offensive team, and I thought he shut down a pretty good offensive team -- in fact, a darn good offensive team."
Red Sox: Availability questions in 'pen, behind plate
Alfredo Aceves went 3 2/3 innings on Tuesday, the third straight game he was used. Scott Atchison said Tuesday night his right groin strain felt better, but he wasn't sure if he could go Wednesday. Bard had another rough September night.
And those are just the bullpen question marks.
Catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia (right collarbone) and Jason Varitek (right knee) both could not start on Tuesday, and Francona said the situation would be evaluated Wednesday.
"I told 'em I was available, ready to play today," Saltalamacchia said. "I'm ready to go. ... The soreness isn't as bad, [but] it's still pretty stiff."
Aceves thinks he can pitch again Wednesday, as does Francona, but Aceves is the type who believes he could pitch in his sleep. Atchison said he'd see how he felt on Wednesday.
As for Bard, who allowed two runs in the eighth inning, he was looking at video after the game. He had a mechanical issue at the start of September, but the righty feels this is a different problem.
"Just kind of searching for arm slot a little bit," Bard said. "Pretty simple. You usually don't look for that stuff this late in the year, but I feel good, I feel like I'm making good pitches."
Orioles: Guerrero finishing strong
A day after Vladimir Guerrero set the all-time hits record for a player born in the Dominican Republic, he went 3-for-5 against the Red Sox on Tuesday, bringing his average in his last 22 games to .374 (34-for-91). That includes two home runs and seven doubles.
Nick Markakis is on a seven-game hit streak, batting .452 (14-for-31) during that stretch.
Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has hit in 35 straight games against the Orioles, since April 17, 2009. No Red Sox player has hit in more consecutive games against one team.
The Sox, 90-71, have won 90 games four times in the last five years.