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The Red Sox opened the American League Championship series with a hard-nosed victory, but it was the only lead they would have in the series. Like last season’s team, they proceeded to drop the next three games, digging themselves a 3-1 hole. They battled valiantly to force the seventh game, even coming back from a seven run deficit with seven outs to go (in Game 5) to keep hope alive. But, it was all for nought as the Rays took the deciding game to advance to their first World Series, even though the Red Sox got on the board first.
All things considered, the 2008 Red Sox had a very good season. Expectations were very high, the team did win 95 games and advance to the ALCS. The team battled through injuries and drama and nearly overcame it all to attempt to repeat. They played with heart and many different guys stepped up throughout the season. The offseason will bring some questions and, no doubt, this team will have a different look to it next year.
The story of this team is so amazing, let us take a minute to talk about them. The Rays were phased by nothing in the series, as if they were he playoff-tested veterans. Their playoff experience paled in comparison to the Red Sox, a recent fixture in October baseball. They had the Red Sox on the ropes in Game 5, but the cardiac Sox came back. That did not break the Rays. The Red Sox survived Game 6 and the Rays seemed unaffected.
The Red Sox had been here before, erasing the 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in 2004 en route to a Series title. The Red Sox just last year beat the Indians in seven, coming back from 3-1 down. The Beantown Boys took an early lead in Game 7, but the resilient Rays would not allow history to repeat itself. They played loose and got contributions for nearly everyone on the roster. Joe Maddon used five pitchers in the eighth in the final game in an inning in which the Red Sox did not score.
Where did the Rays come from? This is a team that never finished closer than 18 games out of first, never won more than 70 in a season, and has three 100-loss seasons in their first 10. Matt Garza said it well in his press conference, noting all of the milestones this team hit: 71 to clinch the most wins in team history, 81 to clinch a .500 record, 97 wins and a division title, and now wins over the White Sox and Red Sox to advance to the World Series. There does not seem to be a limit to where this team can go.
Daisuke Matsuzaka opened the ALCS with one of his best outings of the season. He went seven quality innings, striking out nine. He allowed four hits and did walk four, but this is the Dice-K most of Red Sox Nation thought they were getting. He set the tone for the game which the Red Sox won 2-0 with Jonathan Papelbon wrapping up the save.
Game 2 was the defining game of the series. The Red Sox opened with a first inning Jason Bay two-run double, but then Evan Longoria answered with a home run off Josh Beckett in the bottom of the frame. Dustin Pedroia homered in the third to retake the lead, but the Rays answered right back with a B.J. Upton homerun and RBI single for Carl Crawford followed by a Cliff Floyd homerun. Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Bay all homered to swing the lead back to the Sox, but the Rays regained the lead in the home half.
The Red Sox then clawed back to tie the game and force extra innings. Beckett allowed all eight runs before the bullpen did their job perfectly. Javier Lopez, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and Pap combined for 5-2/3 innings of shutout relief, allowing only three baserunners. The Rays took advantage of Mike Timlin‘s wildness in the 11th, scoring the winning run on an Upton sacrifice fly. The Rays had an answer for everything the Red Sox gave to force the split at home.
As the scene shifted to Fenway, the Rays took the early lead, getting a second inning run off Jon Lester. They got four more in the third to take a commanding 5-0 lead. Lester was able to work into the sixth before giving way to Paul Byrd. Soon enough, the Rays jumped on him as well, getting three more in the eighth to put the game well out of reach and take a 2-1 series lead.
Carlos Pena and Longoria homered in the first inning of Game 4 off Tim Wakefield as the drama of this game was gone early. The Rays built another 5-0 lead and extended it to 11-1 as they put the Red Sox on the brink of elimination, eventually taking Game 4, 13-4.
Game 5 will go down in Red Sox history as one of the biggest comeback’s for the club all-time. Dice-K did not have the same stuff he had in the opener as Upton, Pena, and Longoria each homered to build another 5-0 lead and knock Dice-K out.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, down 7-0 now, the Red Sox finally got rolling at home. Coco Crisp and Pedroia got on in front of Big Papi, who hit a three-run home run to close the gap to three. The Red Sox got right back at it in the eighth with J.D. Drew hitting a home run to score Bay (who had just walked) to pull within one.
The Red Sox tied it later in the inning on a Crisp RBI single. This at-bat was one of the finest pieces of hitting you will ever see. Crisp fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch, finally pushing a single into right field, enough to get Mark Kotsay the green light around third. In a very heads-up play, Crisp turned at first and headed for second to draw the throw, knowing he would be out. However, this prevented the throw from going home, allowing Kotsay to score the tying run. Kotsay likely would have been safe even if there was a throw, but Crisp did the right thing, forcing the Rays to take the easy out and prevent the possiblity of the Red Sox failing to score the tying run.
The Red Sox continued to show life in the ninth, scoring another two-out run as Youk poked an infield hit and advanced to second on Longoria’s wild throw. Jason Bay was walked intentionally and Drew delivered game-winning double. The Red Sox seemed to have disheveled the Rays and the experience seemed to be overtaking the youth.
Josh Beckett finally started to look like himself in Game 6. He allowed a home run to Upton in the first and Jason Bartlett in the fifth, but was very steady outside of that. He only lasted the five innings and 78 pitches, but left the game in a tie.
Jason Varitek finally got a hit, homering to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead and Big Papi provided some insurance as the Red Sox held on for the win. Okajima, Masterson, and Papelbon combined for four innings of shutout relief with only Okajima allowing a baserunner on a walk.
The story was looking familiar with the Red Sox coming back from a big deficit again and forcing the Game 7 with the ace, Lester, taking the hill. Pedroia got the Sox started fast, homering in the first. Lester and Garza went toe to toe for the next three innings until Longoria came up big again, tying the game with a double. New England native and comeback story Rocco Baldelli singled in Willy Aybar to give the Rays the lead in the fifth, but each pitcher hung in the game into the seventh. Both topped the 100 pitch mark as each manager opted to stay with their starters who were getting it done for them.
In the eighth, Alex Cora started the inning by reaching on an error, forcing the exit of Garza. Dan Wheeler came in and allowed a single to Crisp, before getting Pedroia to fly out. Joe Maddon then called on J.P. Howell to face Ortiz, inducing a force play on Crisp at second, but moving Cora to third. Chad Bardford came on and walked Youkilis to load the bases with two gone. Maddon brought in his fifth arm of the inning, rookie David Price, who struck out J. D. Drew to put out the fire. Price stayed in for the ninth and walked Bay, so the Red Sox had the tying run at the plate, but Price settled down, striking out Kotsay and Varitek before inducing a ground out from Jed Lowrie to end the game and the series.
It has not been often of late where the Red Sox heads are hanging while they watch another team celebrate, but the Red Sox overcame a lot to stay in this series. The Rays will be lighter in star power compared to the Phillies, but have more contributors, specifically in the starting rotation and bullpen. With only three games in Philadelphia, Tampa should have the slightest of edges in what should be a seven-game World Series.
The Red Sox offseason will offer up some storylines, not the least of which will be the free agency of Jason Varitek and potential replacement at catcher. The Yankees will be making plays on Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia and the Orioles will make a run at hometown free agent Mark Teixeira. The East certainly will not be any easier next year.