Friday October 17th, 2008

BOSTON -- It was the bottom of the seventh inning, and the Tampa Bay Rays couldn't have been following the script they had written for themselves any more faithfully. Joe Maddon's decision to start Scott Kazmir over James Shields had made him look like the managerial genius that he very well may be, as Kazmir dominated and befuddled the Red Sox over six innings, shutting them out and yielding just a pair of singles. The Rays' offense had once again quieted the Fenway faithful early on, scoring five runs through three innings and two more just before Maddon inserted his "relief ace," Grant Balfour, in place of Kazmir. The World Series was just nine outs away. Then, all of a sudden, it occurred to the Red Sox that this was October, and they were playing at Fenway, and this was not the way things are supposed to go.

The temperature at Fenway had dropped precipitously from Kazmir's first pitch to Balfour's -- from the mid 60s to the low 50s -- and that blast of cold New England air seemed to remind the Sox of both who they were and where they were, even as it seemed to cause the Rays, hot-house dwellers that they are, to tighten up. David Ortiz suddenly became Big Papi again, and he crushed a 1-0 Balfour pitch into the rightfield grandstand for a three-run homer to make the score 7-4. It was only a matter of time after that, as the P.A. system cranked Journey's Don't Stop Believing. (Does any ballpark's staff make better use of its mp3 collection than Fenway's?) Three more runs in the bottom of the eighth and the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth, and the Sox were headed back to St. Petersburg.

In a visitors' clubhouse that was far more sedate than anyone could have imagined roughly an hour earlier, Evan Longoria, the Rays' sensational rookie third baseman, addressed reporters wearing not goggles to ward off the sting of champagne but a white dress shirt and black boxer-briefs. "We outplayed them for six innings, they outplayed us for the last three," Longoria said. "That's the bottom line. We're going home, though. We've gotta be excited about that... We've got to refocus, take this and swallow it and go in on Saturday and be excited to win the ballgame."

Maddon said that he'd allow his team no more than 30 minutes to digest what had just happened. "To dwell on it does no good whatsoever," he said. "We'll lose heart for about a half hour or so, get on that plane, go home and then we'll come back out for Game 6 and roll it out there again."

Maddon's task, perhaps the most important he has faced as Rays manager so far, is to convince his players -- a group that Coco Crisp, who produced the game-tying line-drive single after an extraordinary 10-pitch, eighth-inning at-bat, called "probably the most resilient team I've ever played against" -- that they've still got the upper hand in this ALCS. Which they do, at least on paper. The Rays still have a 3-2 series lead, even if it didn't feel that way in the immediate aftermath of Game 5. They're returning to Tropicana Field, where they compiled the league's best home regular-season record (57-24), and where they've beaten the Sox nine times out of 11 this season, including the playoffs. They've got their finest clutch pitcher, James Shields, on the mound in Game 6. And Shields will be facing Josh Beckett, whom the Rays roughed up with eight runs and nine hits over 4 1/3 innings in Game 2.

Indeed, the fate of both the Rays and the Red Sox might most rest in the hands of Beckett -- or, more accurately, on his balky oblique muscle. If on Saturday Beckett is the same pitcher who served up low-90s fastball after low-90s fastball in Game 2, then all the Sox will have done on Thursday was to allow the Rays to clinch their first World Series berth in front of their mohawked home crowd. If, however, Beckett can somehow recapture the magic and the stuff he had in last year's playoffs, when he went 5-0, allowed four earned runs and struck out 35 batters in 30 innings, then the series will suddenly become the Sox's to lose.

"This is a little road bump," insisted B.J. Upton, who could have been forgiven for compiling mental notes for his ALCS MVP speech during the middle of Thursday night's seventh inning. "They happen. Unfortunately, it happened tonight. We've got to move past it."

If Beckett manages to defeat Shields on Saturday, though, setting up an anything-can-happen Game 7 matchup between Jon Lester and Matt Garza, that little bump might transform into a full-on road block.

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