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Game 1: Red Sox 2, Rays 0

Game 2: Today, 8:07 p.m., on TBS

A good time spoiled

ST. PETERSBURG

It was the best party in town. Loud, festive, full of laughs.

And then, wouldn't you know it, the Rays forgot to bring the dip.

The American League Championship Series arrived in the sport's loneliest outpost Friday night, and it looked and felt exactly the way postseason baseball should.

Sellout crowd, tense game and a post-midnight ending. There was no cool October breeze inside Tropicana Field, but on the other hand, they did find the most annoying American Idol singer available.

All in all, it was a perfect ALCS debut for Tampa Bay.

Other than, you know, the lack of runs.

The Red Sox beat the Rays 2-0 in Game 1, and suddenly Tampa Bay is beginning to understand the heartbreak that is always lurking just around the corner in October.

Home-field advantage is not completely lost in the series, but it is diminished. By not winning both games at Tropicana Field this weekend, the Rays run the risk of never coming back here in 2008.

"I don't want to say this was a good thing, because obviously we would have preferred to win the game," said reliever J.P. Howell. "But now we're back to reality. We're not the team heading to the World Series anymore. This game puts us in a bad spot, and we've been at our best this season when things looked worst.

"So we'll come back (today) and see if we can play our game again."

What is disturbing is that this was the type of game the Rays have typically won this season. It was tight, and it was dramatic. All it lacked was that out-of-nowhere clutch hit from someone on loan from a beer league softball team.

Twenty-eight times the Rays had won this season when trailing by two or more runs. No other team in the majors can match that kind of drama or perseverance.

"I thought we were coming back. It felt like that all night," said Howell. "But that's what happens when you run into a good team. The more drama there is, the better they're going to get."

Howell was right. There were times Friday night when it felt like the Rays would get it done. They had back-to-back singles to lead off the seventh and eighth innings, and they still couldn't even get a runner thrown out at the plate.

The Rays do not need to be told, but this is the lesson of the postseason. Every opportunity that passes by is an opportunity that may never come again.

The Red Sox know this. With an assortment of World Series rings cluttering their lockers, they know how much harder it is to breathe the later you get into October.

Frankly, of all the potential disappointments, this was the easiest to predict. The Rays may be the best defensive team in the league, and their pitching staff is certainly the envy of most teams.

But as a group of hitters? The Rays are mediocre.

That's not really news. They kinda know it. The Rays were ninth in the AL in runs scored. They were 13th in batting average. Think about it this way: Tampa Bay scored fewer runs in 2008 than it did in 2007 when it finished last.

So, yeah, if the Rays were going to get tripped up, the offense was going to be the likely culprit.

The shock is in the details. A week ago, Evan Longoria seemed ready to make the postseason his own. He homered on his first two swings of October and finished Game 1 of the ALDS with three hits and a walk.

Since then, Longoria is 1-for-16 with eight strikeouts, and he hit into a key double play to end the eighth.

You might have guessed the Rays would have some hiccups when the ceremonial first pitch looked like some kind of spastic shooting gallery. Honoring the 500 or so original season-ticket holders, the team selected 11 of them to throw out the first pitch. The Rays had 11 players crouched in a row to catch the pitches, but they didn't count on the assortment of scatter-armed throwers. Pitches were flying everywhere, and pitcher Edwin Jackson bailed out to avoid getting hit.

But you can forgive the Rays if the night did not go according to their script. The Red Sox have been involved in 143 postseason games since 1903. This is Tampa Bay's fifth since a week ago Thursday.

"We can come back from this," said designated hitter Cliff Floyd. "We've been in far worse situations than this."

You get lulled by the length of baseball's regular season. You come to learn there is always another pitch, another inning, another game tomorrow. You worry as much about the temperature of the beer as the average of the batter.

Yet it takes only a few minutes of postseason baseball to shatter that reverie. You find yourself on the front of your seat, and at the edge of your nerves. You wonder whether the next mistake will be the one that haunts a franchise for years to come.

You tell yourself that this won't matter. That the Rays have bounced back from tough defeats time and again.

You tell yourself it is only one loss.

And you try not to think that the Rays may have only three left.

A good time spoiled 10/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:53pm]
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