Koji Uehara allowed a walkoff homer on Monday, but clinched the series on Tuesday. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Any way you look at it, the Red Sox have baseball’s best offense. Boston can pound an opponent into submission (all nine starters had a hit and scored a run in Game 1). It can rely on a middle-order mauler (David Ortiz’s two homers in Game 2). And it is also capable of scratching out a few runs with its feet (a stolen base-wild-pitch-infield-single concoction in Game 4), which is how the Red Sox beat the Rays 3-1 on Tuesday night to advance to their fifth American League Championship Series appearance in the last 11 seasons.
Nine Tampa Bay pitchers held Boston scoreless until the Red Sox plated a pair of runs in the top of the seventh inning with their running game.
With Boston trailing 1-0 and one out, Red Sox rookie Xander Bogaerts pinch-hit for shortstop Stephen Drew and drew a full-count walk. After Will Middlebrooks struck out swining, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury singled Bogaerts to third. The next batter, right fielder Shane Victorino, bluffed a bunt and Rays relief pitcher Joel Peralta bounced a curve that skipped past catcher Jose Lobaton. That allowed Bogaerts to score and, because Ellsbury was stealing on the pitch, he advanced to third. He then scored on Victorino's infield single. Peralta’s pitch was certainly wild, but it’s also possible that either he or Lobaton had been distracted by Ellsbury’s speed on the base paths or Victorino’s bunt decoy (or a combination of the two).
Their Game 4 win showed a new dimension of the Red Sox, whose fleetness of foot has gone overlooked as an asset of their high-powered offense. Boston ranked fourth in the majors with 123 stolen bases, paced by Ellsbury’s MLB-leading 52. More importantly, the Red Sox led all of baseball with an 86.6 percent success rate on stolen-base attempts. Indeed, until Lobaton threw out left fielder Daniel Nava in the eighth inning on a botched hit-and-run, Boston had stolen 45 consecutive bases, dating back to Aug. 8.
About the only thing faster than Ellsbury on the base paths has been the rapidity of the Red Sox’ rebuild. Boston lost 93 games in 2012 but improved by 28 games in ’13 for a 97-win season that led the AL. The Red Sox improved dramatically in all facets of the game, scoring 119 more runs and allowing 150 fewer. The story of ALDS Game 4 would not be complete without a mention of the solid start from Jake Peavy (5 2/3 innings, one run) and the superlative work of the bullpen; three relievers combined for 3 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts, including four from winning pitcher Craig Breslow and two from Koji Uehara, who logged a four-out save.
Boston's record and the AL's victory in the All-Star Game have earned the Red Sox homefield advantage throughout the postseason. They will have the luxury of returning to Boston -- after their champagne-drenched Wednesday night celebration -- and waiting for a jet-lagged opponent to arrive in the wee hours of Friday morning before Saturday’s ALCS Game 1. (The Tigers play the A’s in Game 5 of the ALDS on Thursday night in Oakland.) The Red Sox will have top starter Jon Lester ready and fresh while their as-yet-undetermined opponent will have already used its ace.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has now lost in the ALDS three times in the last four seasons. The only time the Rays advanced beyond the first round was back in 2008, when they lost to the Phillies in the World Series. Nevertheless, Tampa Bay had another successful season -- Andrew Friedman, the team's executive VP of baseball operations, defines his goal as “play[ing] competitive games in September,” as he put it last month -- and the Rays and the Rangers are the only two teas to win 90 or more games in each of the last four seasons. Also, the three straight do-or-die road games that Tampa Bay won just to make the postseason will be more fondly remembered once the sting of this first-round exit fades.
But the Rays face another winter of uncertainty -- they traded starters Matt Garza (in July) and James Shields (last December) two seasons before they were to become free agents and now enter the same benchmark with their ace, David Price -- while its intra-divisional rival gets to hurry up and wait back home in Boston for its next challenger.