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Red Sox force decisive Game 7

Red Sox force decisive Game 7

ST. PETERSBURG -- Two days after pulling out that astounding and historic comeback that earned them this ticket to Tropicana Field for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox had no desire for such stress-inflicted heroics. They just needed a workmanlike win to push this riveting series with the Tampa Bay Rays to the limit, and that's precisely what they got.

In Saturday's 4-2 victory over the Rays, the big hits were spread throughout the contest instead of being saved for the tense final moments. And this time, the pitching tone was also set early, thanks to a less-than-vintage Josh Beckett relying on grit to earn the win -- Boston's first by a starter since Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 1.

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Perhaps no hit was bigger than the solo homer by Jason Varitek, who snapped out of an 0-for-14 drought in the ALCS to break a 2-2 tie with two outs in the sixth. The Red Sox led for the rest of the night.

"We fought," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "That's what our team does. We believe in each other. I think Josh's performance said it all. He's out there with everything he's got trying to keep us in that game, and he did an unbelievable job and set the tone for the game."

After falling behind, 3-1, in this ALCS, Boston has forced Game 7, just like it did in 2004 and '07. In the previous two occasions, the Red Sox were successful in moving on to the World Series. They hope the third attempt will be equally charmed.

"We have been in there before and we know what it takes to win games," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "It's not easy. It's not like we like to be in this situation, but I guess that's the way our destiny has been the past few years that we've won the World Series. It's hard, man. It's not an easy thing to do. You don't want to be [trailing 3-1]."

But there's no more hole for the Red Sox to climb out of. Now the ALCS is even.

"We get to play [Sunday]," said Pedroia. "One of us is going on and the other one is going home."

Jon Lester, Mr. Consistency all year for Boston, will take the ball Sunday night hoping to avenge a rare shaky outing in Game 3. Matt Garza, who beat Lester in that matchup, will be Tampa Bay's Game 7 starter.

Red Sox in Game 6s
With a win Saturday vs. the Rays, the Red Sox are 8-0 in Game 6s when they are trailing 3-2 in a best-of-seven or best-of-nine postseason series.
YearSeriesFoeGame 6Series
1903WSPittsburghWonWon in 8
1967WSSt. LouisWonLost in 7
1975WSCincinnatiWonLost in 7
1986ALCSCaliforniaWonWon in 7
2003ALCSNew YorkWonLost in 7
2004ALCSNew YorkWonWon in 7
2007ALCSClevelandWonWon in 7
2008ALCSRaysWon???

To get to Lester, the Red Sox turned to Beckett, who was clearly pitching at less than 100 percent. Beckett, who injured his right oblique at the end of the regular season, gave Boston five innings, allowing four hits and two runs, walking one and striking out three.

The biggest clue that Beckett was hurting was the sight of Javier Lopez warming up in the bullpen throughout the fourth and Hideki Okajima following suit in the fifth.

"I thought he threw with a lot of guts," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's not vintage Josh Beckett, but he also proved who he is, and again, that was [big]. He gave us what we needed. I don't think it was real easy for him at times, but he pitched with a lot of composure and a lot of guts."

In Beckett's final inning, he surrendered a game-tying homer to left by No. 9 hitter Jason Bartlett, who went deep just once in the regular season. Though Beckett's velocity was down to 88-90 mph for much of the inning, he was able to reach back for a 93-mph fastball to get Akinori Iwamura on a groundout to end the inning. That was all for Beckett, who threw 78 pitches.

Beckett, who carried the Marlins throughout the 2003 postseason and the Red Sox last year, downplayed his Game 6 performance.

"I felt like I executed pitches when I needed to," Beckett said.

The bullpen took it from there, setting up the much-anticipated showdown on Sunday night. In particular, Okajima was big, firing two hitless innings. Justin Masterson, the unflappable rookie, pitched a perfect eighth. Jonathan Papelbon, who has a 0.00 ERA in 25 career postseason innings, fired a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save of the series.

Francona in elimination games
The Red Sox are 9-1 in elimination games under manager Terry Francona.
YearSeriesFoeGameResult
2004ALCSYankees4Won
2004ALCSYankees5Won
2004ALCSYankees6Won
2004ALCSYankees7Won
2005ALDSWhite Sox3Lost
2007ALCSIndians5Won
2007ALCSIndians6Won
2007ALCSIndians7Won
2008ALCSRays5Won
2008ALCSRays6Won

"I think tonight was a battle," said Papelbon. "It was just another classic game where we had to grind out a win. That's pretty much what we've put ourselves into, is having to sit here and grind out wins. That's what we're doing. That's all we're trying to do."

Varitek is the epitome of a grinder. He got a 2-0 pitch from Shields that he liked -- an 89-mph fastball -- and deposited it over the fence in right-center.

"I say this all the time, but I can fortunately go 0-for-2,000 and put down the right fingers and get pitchers to do stuff and come away gratified," Varitek said. "You may not have that opportunity in other positions, and I enjoy that."

It was Varitek's first homer since Sept. 15, which also took place at Tropicana Field.

"It's awesome," said Beckett. "You know, he wears a 'C' on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse -- including players, coaches [and] upper management -- has for him. We're always pulling for the guy. It was huge for him to do that."

The homer by the captain seemed to spark the Red Sox. The offense kept rallying in that sixth, aided a little by the Rays. Coco Crisp (3-for-4) belted a single off second baseman Iwamura and into short right. Pedroia hit a grounder to short that Bartlett made a poor throw to first on. The error set up runners at the corners for Ortiz, and the big designated hitter lofted an RBI single into right-center to make it a 4-2 game.

For the fifth straight game, the Rays struck with some quick offense. It was delivered off the bat of B.J. Upton, who crushed a Beckett fastball off the C-ring catwalk for a solo homer with one out in the bottom of the first.

The Red Sox didn't take long to respond. Kevin Youkilis opened the second by hammering a 89-mph fastball by Shields for a solo shot to left to tie the game.

Pedroia got a rally started in the third by drawing a one-out walk. Ortiz followed by ripping a double down the line in right. Youkilis, Boston's best RBI man all year, did his job, giving the Red Sox a 2-1 lead with a fielder's-choice grounder to short.

The game still had some momentum swings left, but in the end, the Red Sox were again left standing to improve to 9-1 in potential elimination games under Francona.

"You're battling every single pitch, and mentally, it's obviously draining," Pedroia said. "Once you hit the pillow at night, you go straight to sleep. But it's fun just being here. It's exciting to play. A couple of nights ago, down 7-0, we really didn't think this would come. We're here."

And with one more win, the Red Sox will be in the World Series with a chance to defend their title.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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