On to Game 7 as Sox top Rays
Scintillating victory keeps Olde Towne comeback story alive
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - They have done right by the Nation. They have played with the heart of a lion. And they are scaring the Devil out of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Carrying the good karma and momentum gained in Thursday night's historic comeback at Fenway Park, the still-defending world champion Red Sox beat the Rays again last night, 4-2, to force tonight's Game 7 for the right to advance to the World Series.
It really is the stuff of dreams. Once known as postseason floppers, the Red Sox are now kings of October. They have won nine straight American League Championship Series elimination games since the 19-8 beatdown by the Yankees in 2004. Mathematically, it's nearly impossible. They are the team you don't want to play because you can't put them away.
"We've come down to the last game and whoever plays better moves on," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's probably appropriate."
There was no guarantee there would be any Boston bounce after the Thursday miracle. To a man, the Rays said they would be able to put the big choke in their rearview mirror. Game 5 would not impact Game 6, they said. Just another loss.
But it was not just another random loss. It was a moment of abject devastation for the young Rays and last night's defeat only enlarged the magnitude of Game 5. The Rays are free-falling and the Red Sox are more confident by the inning.
Three days ago, the Rays led, 7-0, with two outs in the seventh. Champagne was in their clubhouse. And then the Red Sox cut their hearts out. The Rays had two full days to think about it. And now they are trying to do what the Yankees could not do in 2004, what the Indians couldn't do in 2007. They are trying to close the deal against the redoubtable Red Sox. Tonight they get one last chance against lefthander Jon Lester, who has been Boston's best pitcher in this postseason. Matt Garza goes for Tampa Bay. He was dominant at Fenway in Game 3.
Josh Beckett was supposed to be ripe for another beating last night. He strained an oblique muscle at the end of the regular season and was roughed up in his first two playoff starts. But like the rest of his teammates, Beckett found a way to win. Throwing an array of breaking stuff and 91-mile-per-hour fastballs, he held Tampa at bay for five serviceable innings, turning a 4-2 lead over to his bullpen. Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and Jonathan Papelbon blanked the dumbstruck Rays, allowing zero hits over the final four frames.
Here's another indication of how things are going for the Red Sox: The winning run came from the salami bat of Jason Varitek. The estimable captain has been an automatic out this year. He hit .220 during the regular season and was working on an 0-for-15 streak (0 for 14 in the ALCS) when he stepped to the plate to face Big Game James Shields with two out and nobody aboard in a 2-2 game in the sixth.
Boom. Home run. And now the Red Sox are on the threshold of their third World Series in five years.
The Rays planned on getting it done with "Big Game." It's an interesting nickname for a 26-year-old guy with 32 big league wins. There must have been a lot of big games when he was pitching for Bakersfield in 2004. In Shields's major league career, most of his work has been done for a last-place team trying to avoid 100 losses.
The locals pulled the curtain off cobwebbed upper-deck sections for Game 6, resulting in more fans (40,947) and more cowbells. Red Sox Nation, as always, was well represented, and there was considerable fuss from Sox-garbed New Englanders every time the visitors did something positive.
Beckett was getting along with so-so stuff. (Francona: "I thought he threw with a lot of guts. It's not vintage Josh Beckett, but he gave us what we needed.")
Until the fifth when he hung a 2-and-2 curveball to Jason Bartlett. The Tampa shortstop, who hit only one home run all season, launched the pitch over the wall in left to make it 2-2.
Varitek put the Sox ahead for good in the next inning. The captain was 3 for 28 in the postseason when he struck.
"I couldn't think of anything more appropriate," said Francona. "Our whole dugout went crazy. The way it happened, and as hard as he's worked, it meant a lot to everybody."
When Coco Crisp followed with a single, Big Game was lifted in favor of J.P. Howell. Then came more gagging from the home team. Bartlett made a horrible throw on a routine grounder by Dustin Pedroia to keep the inning alive. Naturally, the Sox capitalized. An awakened David Ortiz singled to center, scoring Crisp to make it 4-2.
The Rays never threatened in the final four frames.
"We just didn't hit the ball and Shieldsy was not on top of his game," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.
The front page of yesterday's St. Petersburg Times led with a lengthy feature in which 19 of "Florida's best and brightest" offered advice to the local team in the wake of Thursday's meltdown in Boston. The piece was entitled, "Dear Rays: You can do it," with a subhead of "Buck up, boys. Folks who know a thing or two about success have some advice for you."
Nice try. Now what? The Gene Hackman scene from "Hoosiers"?
"That happened a couple of days ago," said Rays manager Joe Maddon when asked about the Game 5 flameout. "That has nothing to do with tomorrow. It's not about looking in the past, it's about looking in the future."
Here's the future in Boston. The Bruins play their home opener tomorrow night while the Patriots will be at Gillette against the Broncos on "Monday Night Football." The Celtics open their title defense at the Garden a week from Tuesday.
And the Red Sox are planning on starting the World Series Wednesday night at Fenway against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.