ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It all feels so incredibly, shockingly familiar. So inevitable, really. With nothing left to do but win, with the offseason within their sight, the Red Sox have come back. They have come back from a seven-run, seventh-inning deficit, from two shaky outings from their ace of postseason aces, and from the brink of falling to the Rays in this American League Championship Series.
It was Josh Beckett, and Jason Varitek, and Kevin Youkilis, and Hideki Okajima last night. And it was Jonathan Papelbon, closing out a 4-2 Boston win and extending his postseason brilliance. It was Game No. 172 to the no-game-is-bigger-than-any-other Red Sox - No. 6 of the ALCS to those uninitiated - and provided passage to another showdown.
Clear the calendar. There's a game tonight.
"There's nowhere to run," said David Ortiz. "We've been in there before. We know what it takes to win games. It's not easy. It's not like we like to be in that situation. I guess that's the way our destiny has been the past few years that we have won the World Series. It's hard, man. It's not an easy thing to do."
Easy or not, it is on to Game 7 in a series that seemed destined to end in Game 5. Ah, Game 7. It's a spot that many Red Sox have been in, and few Rays have. Nineteen current Sox have played in a Game 7. Just three Rays have. It's a gap that could prove the difference. Or it could mean nothing.
Still, on a night that featured a TV blackout, an injured umpire, a shocking home run by Varitek, and a solid five from Beckett, the Red Sox moved on to one last must-win to reach the World Series. And this, for the Rays, is oh-so-dangerous.
"It's all how we react to the moment, and it's a seventh game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "So it's not about looking into the past, it's about looking into the future right now. We've got to get ready to play that game [tonight]."
It was a game that seemed destined for greatness and oddity from the start, when viewers were angered by a TBS technical failure that kept the first 19 or so minutes in darkness. Only the rest of the game was broadcast to the masses, a fact that made Red Sox fans far happier than Rays fans. Because on a night that the Rays were billing as their night to celebrate, it was the Sox who walked off the field as winners in front of 40,947 at Tropicana Field.
And it was all due to a most unlikely source. Not that the five innings of two-run ball from Beckett could be overlooked. But it was the surprising, out-of-nowhere home run for Varitek that gave the Sox a lead they wouldn't give up.
With Jason Bartlett having just hit an equally astounding homer inside the left field foul pole - just his second of the season - Varitek stepped to the plate with two outs in the sixth inning with the burden of an 0-for-14 streak. He stung the pitch just hard enough to reach the first row of the right-field bleachers, though even he wasn't quite sure he had hit it hard enough. Balls don't always carry true in this ballpark.
"I don't think I could, from our side, think of anything more appropriate," manager Terry Francona said, of Varitek's first hit of the ALCS. "Our whole dugout went crazy. We'll take runs any way we can get it, but by that means and by who hit is, it was not just a big run, it was a huge run."
So as the pitcher with the garish nickname - that would be Big Game James - was slipping in and out of trouble in the early innings, it was the pitcher with the actual big-game résumé who was doing his wily best to keep the Rays off the bases. With an added focus on his curveball, in addition to a fastball that he was commanding, Beckett collected yet another postseason win.
"You can't say enough about his competitive spirit," pitching coach John Farrell said. "He never makes excuses. He got it handed to him the last two starts, both with these guys and against the Angels. I think that's where his experience in the postseason and his experience as a major leaguer steps in. Doesn't make too much of the situation, recognizes fully the physical condition he's dealing with, and I think because he doesn't make excuses and look for an out, he's going to go out and compete with what he has."
He had allowed just one hit in the first inning, a solo home run by the sizzling B.J. Upton, which hit the C-ring catwalk, then fell to the turf in left field in front of Jason Bay. But unfortunately, instead of seeing the homer, New England was treated to an episode of the "The Steve Harvey Show." They missed Upton's home run, which was recapped later in the broadcast, though hardly placated angry baseball fans.
Once TBS returned to baseball, at 8:28 p.m., viewers were treated to a diminished, but still solid Beckett. With a fastball that didn't exceed 93 miles per hour and a heavy dose of his curveball, Beckett kept the Rays without another hit until Carl Crawford flared a two-out single into short left field in the fourth. But Beckett allowed the Rays to tie up the score at 2-2 in the fifth on Bartlett's homer.
Shields and his bullpen buddies were dancing around danger. The Sox left 12 runners on base, and were just 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position. And, still they won.
It all came down to doing things right. Not only did the Sox get solid starting pitching from Beckett, but they followed that with perfection from their bullpen, including two innings from Okajima. Other than that clutch hitting, the Sox found just enough runs to win, just enough momentum to give themselves another day and another game.
How else could this team get to the World Series? Though they do still need one more win, even the Sox can recognize how good they have it. How good they've made baseball for themselves.
It was on the bus the other day, heading from Fenway Park to the airport after their miraculous Game 5 win, that Kevin Youkilis reflected on all that he's been a part of - three comebacks from the depths of elimination - to Varitek, sitting next to him.
"I said, 'We're so spoiled,' " Youkilis said. "It's amazing. It's really amazing the games we play, and how much fun it's been. When we're all old and our children are all grown up, we'll sit around and meet up and talk about games like the game the other day. It's a wild ride, and we're very spoiled."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.