Sox dreams dashed
No return trip to World Series as Rays win, 3-1
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It feels like Super Bowl XLII all over again. History derailed. Again.
The Red Sox were going to the World Series. They stole Game 5 at Fenway last week, then overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday night. When Dustin Pedroia homered in the first inning of Game 7 last night, the young Rays were ready to fold. Jon Lester had a perfect game and a 1-0 lead after three.
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The Rays sent Red Sox Nation into winter with a righteous 3-1 victory at Tropicana Field. Matt Garza, a 24-year-old righty from Fresno State, blinded the Red Sox on two hits over seven innings and David Price, a rookie reliever with five regular-season big league games on his résumé, sealed the deal in the eighth and ninth. The World Series opens Wednesday night at the Trop.
So there you have it, Sox fans. Dome to Dome. Hopes dashed to dust.
The Boston baseball season started in the Tokyo Dome with Manny Ramírez hitting a game-winning double to beat the Oakland A's. The Sox' title defense ended on the phony floor of the Trop just when it felt as if the Fall Classic was coming back to Fenway.
When high-octane Price retired Jed Lowrie on a grounder to second, it marked the finish of a curious Sox season that at times tricked us into believing we might be witnessing Boston baseball's first dynasty since Babe Ruth and friends won three World Series in four years during the Woodrow Wilson Administration. The Sox were almost impossible to bury. Ask Tampa manager Joe Maddon.
"Any time you lose your last game, it's disappointing," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said in the loser's clubhouse. "When you lose a Game 7, that's the thing you end up remembering, but that's part of what keeps you burning."
This would have been Hub hardball's third championship in five Octobers, but in the end there were too many speed bumps and potholes on the road to glory. Manny forced the Sox to trade him in July, Mike Lowell's hip sent him to the shelf, Josh Beckett strained an oblique just before the playoffs, and Terry Francona never had enough dependable arms in the bullpen. And then the Rays finally stood up and fought back in Game 7 after cowering in Games 5 and 6.
The Red Sox were beaten by a better team. The Rays never played .500 ball before this year, but in October of '08 they are every bit as talented as any Yankees team the Sox battled in the last decade. Tampa beat the Red Sox 10 times in 18 tries during the regular season, finished two games ahead of Boston, and took out the Franconamen in a worthy seventh game.
"We didn't get as far as we wanted," said the manager. "We got beat by a very good team. They'll represent the American League very, very well. But this is probably the funnest couple months maybe I've ever had."
Let's face it: If not for the unbelievable Sox comeback in Game 5, this thing would have been over four days ago.
For a few hours, the Thursday night miracle (the Sox rallied to win, 8-7, after trailing, 7-0, with two out in the seventh) walked side-by-side with Carlton Fisk/Game 6/1975, and the comeback against the Yanks in '04. Now it's just a nifty footnote in 10 decades of Fenway history.
The shellshocked Rays and their fans seemed braced for defeat early yesterday. After the colossal fold in Game 5, the wait had become the weight for the talented upstarts. There were reports of Rays fans who sold Game 7 tickets to Bostonians, then bolted to Raymond James Stadium to watch the Buccaneers play the Seattle Seahawks.
The inimitable Don Zimmer threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Celebrating his 60th year in uniform, Zim is an instructor/adviser with the Rays and we wondered for a moment if he'd brought some Bucky Dent baggage to the Trop.
Garza was a tad skittish in the first inning. Pedroia sent his sixth pitch of the night over the wall in left for a 1-0 lead as thousands of Sox fans roared. After getting squeezed by plate umpire Brian Gorman during a David Ortiz walk, Garza slammed the rosin bag into the dirt. He settled down in a big way after that.
Lester, ever-pulseless, retired the first nine in order, four on strikeouts.
The Rays tied it, 1-1, in the fourth. Akinori Iwamura woke up the crowd with a leadoff single. He was erased on a force play, but Evan Longoria plated Carlos Peña with a two-out double to right.
Tampa took a 2-1 lead with three hits at the start of the fifth. Willy Aybar led with a double to left, and scored on a single to left by Rocco Baldelli. With two aboard and nobody out, Lester bore down and got the next three batters.
The Sox threatened in the seventh, putting runners on the corners with two out, but gallant captain Jason Varitek struck out swinging on a 1-and-2 pitch. Francona pinch hit for Varitek three times in the postseason, but the catcher hit a game-winning homer Saturday night, perhaps buying more chances in the late innings of the finale.
Aybar's solo shot off Lester at the start of the seventh made it 3-1.
Boston's best chance came in the remarkable eighth. It was an inning in which Maddon used five pitchers and the Rays did not surrender a run. The Sox loaded the bases on an error, a Coco Crisp single, and a Kevin Youkilis walk. Maddon summoned Price and the kid fanned J.D. Drew looking on a 97-mile-per-hour heater on a 1-and-2 count. For all practical purposes, that was it.
Varitek struck out again in the ninth. Asked after the game if this might be the end of his Sox career, the catcher became emotional and covered his face in a towel. Just after 12:20 this morning, dressed in a gray suit, he walked out of the Sox clubhouse carrying a bag over his shoulder that read "Game Ready."
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.