ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Red Sox had come down here saying that, through all these miracles and moments, they were fortunate. They were spoiled. They had done the impossible, and then done it again. But there, on the turf of Tropicana Field, was where it would end for this season. As far as they had returned from the depths, they would not make it all the way back.
There would be no happy ending this time. No champagne-splashed comeback, no history made. With the odds against the Tampa Bay Rays, they wouldn't let the Red Sox finish them on this winner-take-all night, taking a 3-1 victory from the defending world champions to win the American League, four games to three.
So, yes, in an incredible dream season, a season that finally made believers of the sun-kissed Florida fans, the Rays will meet the Phillies in the World Series.
"We got beat," Jason Varitek said. "They beat us today. We could have folded our tents a long time ago, and this team went out there and made it a series."
No, more than that, though. The Sox, with all their injuries and offensive woes, couldn't find a way to win one more game. They couldn't find a way to win Game 7. And, with that, there were only handshakes and goodbyes in the visitors' clubhouse. The bubbly belonged on the field and in the home digs, where the upstart Rays proved they are upstart no longer.
For the Rays, thanks goes to a gritty and gutty performance by starter Matt Garza, who allowed two hits in seven innings, the only damage a Dustin Pedroia solo home run in the first inning. The Red Sox had come back from being down in the series, 3-1. But they could go no farther, the pile of Rays near the pitchers' mound evidence that the Sox were bound for vacation - and not for a date with the Phillies in the Series.
"You get to these moments - I've been there in the past - and you can feel it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You can taste it, you know it, and it was all there. All that stuff was present."
From Garza to David Price, it was there. With 118 pitches, one shy of his season high, Garza walked off the mound toward the dugout, and the World Series. He got a standing ovation, the crowd of 40,473 threatening to blow out eardrums around the park.
A parade of relievers followed, from Dan Wheeler to J.P. Howell to Chad Bradford to Price. And it was Price, who struck out J.D. Drew with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth to end the biggest threat of the evening for the Sox. It was their chance, and then it was gone.
"I don't think I went around," Drew said. "I think that at-bat was kind of taken away from me. If I check my swing, ask the third-base umpire. Worry about balls and strikes and let the third-base umpire do his job. That's the only thing that hurt me. I thought that I held up."
But third-base umpire Tim McClelland was not consulted, and the teams were on to the bottom of the inning. That was when, finally, Jon Lester was removed (quietly) from the game in which he'd done just enough to lose.
In a season in which Lester grew into his role as the Sox ace, certainly of the postseason, he ended it with another stellar performance. It just wasn't good enough. A 3-and-2 pitch to Willy Aybar in the seventh that sailed into the left-field stands to give the Rays a 3-1 lead was the only true mistake Lester said he made.
"It's experience," said Lester. "It's another building block in our development at the big league level. You have to come to realize that it's not always peaches and cream, it's not always going to be winning World Series and on top of the world. You're going to have your ups and downs."
One of the downs for Lester came on another Aybar moment, this one in the fifth inning, as teammates screamed from the dugout as he rounded third and headed home to give the Rays their first lead of the game. So they urged him on, as Jason Bay collected the ground ball to left field off the bat of Rocco Baldelli.
But the Rays could have had more. There were no outs, with Jason Bartlett up with men on first and second, as pitching coach John Farrell visited the mound. Strikeout swinging. Then it was an Akinori Iwamura groundout and a soft liner from so-hot-he's-steaming B.J. Upton that finished the inning with no further damage by the Rays.
As for the Sox, though Pedroia tucked the sixth pitch of the game behind the foul pole and into the left-field stands, there was little to follow. It was the only hit the Sox would get until Bay's single with one out in the seventh.
"He's got four pitches," Varitek said of Garza, who struck out nine in seven innings. "He had good life on his fastball to go along with his slider and his curveball."
And the Sox could do little against him. So, all the Rays needed were just three runs. Three runs to overcome a Red Sox team that had fashioned a win out of a loss in Game 5, kept it going in Game 6, but couldn't quite pull it out in the end. They were so close.
"We got beat by a very good team," manager Terry Francona said. "They'll represent the American League very, very well. But this is probably the funnest couple months maybe I've ever had. I know our guys will be down for a little while, but they have no reason to hang their head."
After the game, few were. Though there are players on the team - like Lester and Pedroia - who barely know life outside of the World Series, the players were hardly ready to break down. They had done, they said, all they were capable of. The Rays simply had done more.
"We played as hard as we could," Pedroia said. "We just ran out of magic."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.