Red Sox thrive on ALCS adversity
The Red Sox edged the Rays 4-2 to force survivor-take-all Game 7 on Sunday
Jason Varitek broke 0-for-14 slump with go-ahead home run in the sixth inning
St. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- They are at their best when they are beat up, lying by the side of the road and barely breathing. They laugh at pain. They feed on adversity. If the Red Sox don't fall hopelessly behind in a postseason series every once in a while and live to tell about it ... well, heck, they just don't feel like they've been true to themselves.
The Sox backed away from the brink of postseason oblivion on Saturday night -- stop me if you've heard this before -- and forced a survivor-take-all Game 7 in the American League Championship Series by upending the upstart and, maybe, slightly uptight Rays in Game 6, 4-2 (Recap | Box Score). The Sox won in a place that's been less friendly to them than a Bronx street corner with a stirring performance from their ailing ace, Josh Beckett, a clutch home run from their embattled catcher, Jason Varitek, a run-scoring single from struggling slugger David Ortiz, a bucked-up bullpen and a little help from the suddenly reeling Rays.
And so, on Sunday night, the Sox will play another Game 7 in the ALCS, the fourth they've forced in the past six seasons. It will mark their 10th ALCS elimination game since 2004. They are 9-0 in those games.
"I guess that's the way destiny has been," said Ortiz, who reached out on a J.P. Howell curveball in the sixth inning and poked it to right field, driving in Dustin Pedroia, who had reached on yet another Tampa Bay error. "You don't want to be there, but ..."
Given the alternatives, the Sox are only too happy to be in the position they will be in Sunday night. After a close loss in Game 2, and blowout wins by Tampa Bay in Games 3 and 4, things didn't look good for Boston in the first-to-four series. But the Sox launched a stirring comeback on the Rays in Game 5 at Fenway Park on Thursday, forcing Saturday's game in a place they had won only twice this year.
For the rope-a-dope Red Sox, winning in Tropicana Field on this night was no problem at all. Beckett, still clearly bothered by a pulled oblique muscle, somehow outwitted the Rays, going five innings and allowing only four hits and two runs -- a solo home run to B.J. Upton and a solo homer by No. 9 hitter Jason Bartlett. The other two hits were an opposite field bloop single by Carl Crawford and a bloop single to right field by Dioner Navarro.
"I told you, no matter what kind of stuff he has, he's going to go out there and pitch his butt off," said Jon Lester, the real ace of this staff and the scheduled starter for Boston in Game 7. "And he did."
Said Boston manager Terry Francona: "I don't think it was real easy for him at times, but he pitched with a lot of composure and a lot of guts."
The Boston bullpen, playing second chair to Tampa Bay's pen so far in this series, then came in and shut down the Rays the rest of the way. No hits, no runs, one walk, three strikeouts. Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon did the honors.
About the only threat the Rays mounted after falling behind 4-2 in the sixth came in the eighth with Masterson in. He hit Bartlett with a 3-2 pitch to end a seven-pitch at-bat, then fell behind leadoff man Akinori Iwamura 2-0, prompting an immediate mound meeting with John Farrell, his pitching coach.
Farrell talked to him about visualizing getting some outs, told him to watch his arm dragging a bit when he was pitching out of the stretch, and it worked. Masterson threw nine straight strikes at the guts of the Rays' lineup to end the inning. Iwamura struck out, Upton popped up to the second baseman and Carlos Pena popped up to the shortstop against a shifted infield.
Threat ended. Game, essentially, over. Vintage Red Sox.
"Bartlett put up a great at-bat against him. He was clearly out of synch," Farrell said of Masterson. "[But] he's never too far from being flat-lined. He's able to regroup in a pretty quick period of time."
Quicker, probably, than even Farrell recognizes. "I knew exactly what he was going to say," Masterson said.
The feel-good moment of the night, at least for the Sox and their sizable traveling party of fans, came earlier, in the sixth inning, when team captain Varitek snapped an 0-for-14 postseason stretch by knocking a 2-0 pitch from Tampa Bay starter James Shields over the right field wall for a solo homer, breaking a 2-2 tie. "You know, he wears a 'C' on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse, including players, coaches, upper management, has for him," Beckett said. "We're always pulling for the guy, but it was huge for him to do that."
As much as the win might have been expected by anyone who has watched the Red Sox in the ALCS lately -- remember, they were down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004 and 3-1 to the Indians in 2007 -- it still managed to stun the Rays, who were seven outs away from a trip to the World Series, and leading 7-0, before the Sox put on the comeback of all comebacks Thursday at Fenway Park.
Despite that setback, everything seemed to be lined up for the Rays in this one. They had their ace, Shields, rested and ready. They were swinging the bat well, putting up big leads on the Sox in each of the past three games. They were at home in front of 40,000-plus fans.
But Shields scuffled, giving up the home runs to Varitek and, earlier, Kevin Youkilis. Nobody hit. Bartlett made the key throwing error in the sixth that preceded Ortiz's run-scoring single. (It was the fifth error for the Rays in this series, all in the last three games.)
And now they face a Game 7 and the possibility of blowing everything that they have worked so hard this year to gain.
"Guess what. We get to play in a Game 7 [Sunday]," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "We wish we wouldn't have gotten to this point. But here we are. It should be a lot of fun."
It should be. But Sunday night the fun's going to end for someone.