After everything they had gone through -- the injuries that never seemed to stop, the 3-1 deficit they once faced in the ALCS -- the defending World Series champions had the tying run at the plate with two outs in the ninth.
But this was the occasion where, as Dustin Pedroia put it, the Red Sox ran out of "magic," losing to the Rays by a score of 3-1 in a tense, riveting contest.
There was a flicker of hope when Jason Bay led off the ninth inning with a walk. And another flicker when, with two outs, Jed Lowrie's hard grounder toward the middle took a big bounce. But Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori Iwamura came up with it and ran to second for the force, ending Boston's season just one win shy of the World Series.
"We played as hard as we could," said Pedroia. "We just kind of ran out of magic. I'm proud of everybody. We played as hard as we could all year long. To get to this point, it's obviously a tough loss. They move on. We gave ourselves an opportunity. We gave ourselves a chance to win a game. We kept fighting. There's no quit in this team. They just ended up beating us."
The battle back from the brink fell just short for the Red Sox this time around, as they were overmatched by the nasty offerings of Matt Garza for seven-plus innings, and at the very end, some more heat from 23-year-old rookie left-hander David Price, an ultra-talented September callup.
Just like that, the Red Sox saw their chances of becoming baseball's first repeat World Series champions since the Yankees -- who won three in a row from 1998-2000 -- come to an end.
Instead, it will be the Rays playing the Phillies in the World Series, beginning on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
"We didn't get as far as we wanted," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "We got beat by a very good team. They'll represent the American League very, very well. But this is probably the [most enjoyable] couple of months maybe I've ever had."
In the closing game, Boston lefty Jon Lester turned in the same type of performance he did for most of his breakthrough season, going seven strong innings and striking out eight. He scattered six hits and three runs on a night the Rays were able to chip away just enough. Unfortunately, the young lefty lost back-to-back starts for the first time in his career.
Winner take all
|This was the 12th time that the Red Sox participated in a winner-take-all game in the postseason, the 10th in a best-of-seven series.|
|1912||WS||New York||Won||Won in 8|
|1946||WS||St. Louis||Lost||Lost in 7|
|1967||WS||St. Louis||Lost||Lost in 7|
|1975||WS||Cincinnati||Lost||Lost in 7|
|1986||ALCS||California||Won||Won in 7|
|1986||WS||New York||Lost||Lost in 7|
|1999||ALDS||Cleveland||Won||Won in 5|
|2003||ALDS||Oakland||Won||Won in 5|
|2003||ALCS||New York||Lost||Lost in 7|
|2004||ALCS||New York||Won||Won in 7|
|2007||ALCS||Cleveland||Won||Won in 7|
|2008||ALCS||Tampa Bay||Lost||Lost in 7|
Other than the result, the Red Sox had no regrets. It took a miracle comeback in Game 5 -- the Red Sox were down 7-0 with seven outs to go -- just to push the ALCS back to Tropicana Field for two more games.
"[I'm] very proud," said Lester. "It's just a testament to the character that's in this clubhouse, and the will and the fight. Nobody gave up. Everybody still believed, down, 3-1, and we kept fighting to move on and got to Game 7 and still kept fighting. And it just didn't go our way."
In the last official act of Boston's 2008 season, Lowrie was called on to pinch-hit for Alex Cora. Lowrie took a good swing at Price's 1-1 fastball, but the rookie shortstop just didn't get enough of it.
"It stinks being that guy," said Lowrie. "At the same time, I want to be in that spot. I wanted the opportunity to keep the season going. I hit the ball hard. The ball almost bounced over his head. Like I said, it stinks to be the guy that makes the last out, but they played a great game and we made them earn it. We could have easily rolled over."
Down two runs heading into the eighth, the Sox got a break when Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett booted Cora's grounder to open the inning. That was all for Garza. Dan Wheeler came on and Coco Crisp delivered a single to right, putting runners on first and second with none out. Wheeler got a big out off the bat of Pedroia, a routine flyout to left.
The way Pedroia had come through all year long, nobody would have been surprised if he had slammed an extra-base hit into the gap.
"I just got under it a little bit," Pedroia said. "That's the way the game goes."
Out came Rays manager Joe Maddon, who brought in lefty J.P. Howell to face David Ortiz, Boston's most imposing slugger. Howell did his job, getting Ortiz on a grounder to second, with the Rays getting the force at second. If Crisp had gone straight for the bag instead of trying to take out Bartlett, he might have been safe at second. But it was an instinct play in which he was trying to make sure the slow-footed Ortiz didn't hit into a double play.
Francona in elimination games
|The Red Sox are 9-2 in elimination games under manager Terry Francona.|
"I just didn't get a hit," said Ortiz. "They're not putting the ball on the tee for me to hit."
Maddon again went to the bullpen, this time calling for sidewinding righty Chad Bradford to face Kevin Youkilis, who worked a walk on a 3-2 pitch, loading the bases. Maddon came out yet again, this time calling for Price to face J.D. Drew. Price showed nerves of steel, striking out Drew on four pitches. Drew felt he had checked his swing and was disappointed home-plate umpire Brian Gorman didn't appeal to third-base umpire Tim McClelland.
"I don't think I went around," Drew said. "That being said, I felt like the bat was kind of taken away from me. I felt like I had a good chance in that at-bat. He got ahead of me quick. As far as the at-bat goes, if I checked my swing, ask the third-base umpire. I felt like I held up."
For a while, it seemed as if a familiar script was unfolding. The Red Sox made a historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS in 2004. And just last year, they rallied back from 3-1 against the Indians in the ALCS before going on to win the World Series for the second time in four seasons.
This time, however, the Red Sox couldn't complete the comeback task by winning Game 7 of the ALCS. They led early on a solo homer by Pedroia in the top of the first, but the Boston bats went quiet until the eighth. Garza was heroic in limiting Boston to two hits over seven-plus innings. The righty walked three and struck out nine, throwing 118 pitches.
The Red Sox sent their most consistent starter to the mound in Lester, and he was dominant early, retiring the first nine batters he faced.
But the Rays rallied for a run in the fourth, getting an opposite-field double to right by Evan Longoria to tie it. They got another one in the fifth on an RBI single by Rocco Baldelli to take their first lead. Perhaps the dagger was an insurance home run from Willy Aybar in the seventh to give them a two-run edge.
"Really, out of 100 or so pitches, I really only want one back," Lester said. "I didn't execute one pitch. I don't think that was really a backbreaker or anything. I was happy with the way I threw the ball. They just beat me tonight. Garza threw the [heck] out of the ball tonight. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you just run into a pitcher that has stuff like him on a night like this."
There was one other sequence that came back to haunt the Red Sox. Pedroia worked Garza for an 11-pitch walk in the sixth, bringing Ortiz to the plate. But Ortiz struck out on the seventh pitch and Pedroia was caught stealing, ending the inning just like that.
From there, the momentum shifted to the Rays for good in a series in which it swayed wildly.
"It wasn't our year," said Ortiz. "We had a lot of injuries, a lot of different things this year. It's been a tough year. We tried to fight back. It's not what you expect. But they played better than we did."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.