ST. PETERSBURG — They have taught us much this season.
In a community that had never known the drama of a summertime pennant race, they showed Tampa Bay what it means to live through box scores and magic numbers.
In a market that had never fully embraced baseball, they showed us how unifying the sport can be as it proceeds day by day and hero by hero into the far reaches of October.
And now, this evening, the Rays have one more lesson to impart.
The indescribable joy of going to the World Series.
Or the heartbreak of falling one game short.
This is it. One last meeting. After a seven-month battle in the AL East and 24 head-to-head games, the Rays and the Red Sox have one final showdown to decide the champions of the American League.
It is called Game 7.
And it is the greatest moment in sports.
The Super Bowl might be the most-watched event of the year, and the Kentucky Derby might be the most exciting two minutes in sports, but nothing compares to Game 7 when it comes to the daily accumulation of suspense.
"We have to make it dramatic," pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "That's our style."
This American League Championship Series has been everything you might have wanted and a little of what you would hope to never see again. Two games have been decided in the final at-bat, and both teams have claimed control at various points of this 10-day journey.
It could have ended Thursday night in Boston, but the Rays blew the biggest lead ever in a postseason elimination game. It could have ended Saturday night at Tropicana Field, but Tampa Bay's bats turned soft and its gloves went hard. And now the Rays are a single game from ending a glorious season.
The Rays can say they are not shaken. They can pretend their nerves are not frayed. They can act as if they will take the field this evening with their usual carefree outlook on the world.
But history suggests they are scared hitless.
In the past century of postseason baseball, 14 teams have seen their 3-1 series lead evaporate by losing Games 5 and 6. Only three of those 14 have recovered to win Game 7.
"You couldn't expect it to be any other way," said outfielder Rocco Baldelli. "You know when you're playing the Red Sox there is no way it's going to be easy. If you had to bet before the series began, you would have probably said this was going to a Game 7."
If this is to be heartache, the Rays are learning from the very best. Few franchises suffered as much disappointment as the Red Sox did through much of the 20th century. And no franchise has pulled off as many dramatic comebacks in LCS play as Boston.
The Red Sox were down 3-1 in 1986 against the Angels, in 2004 against the Yankees and last season against the Indians — and came back to win each series in a Game 7.
For all the Rays have done, for all they have accomplished across seven months and 172 games, this is the only scenario that would leave you feeling as if they somehow failed.
It shouldn't be that way, of course. Winning 97 games and holding off the Red Sox and the Yankees in the regular season should be enough. The comebacks, the walkoff wins, this incredible tale of ascension and perseverance should be the lasting image of this club.
But if the Rays do not win tonight, it will be just a little more difficult to appreciate all of that. You do not get three cracks at winning the American League pennant and not feel a little cheated. You do not come within seven outs — with a seven-run lead in Game 5 — and not feel let down.
"We have been through a lot," Kazmir said. "There have been so many times when people counted us out, and we overcame everything. Hopefully, this is another bump in the road to where we want to go."
And so everything up to this point becomes a footnote. B.J. Upton is having a postseason for the ages, and it will be a historical oddity if the Rays do not win. Kazmir defied a world of doubters in Game 5, but it might eventually be remembered as the night a bullpen collapsed.
This would be the single greatest moment of heartbreak sports fans in Tampa Bay have known. The Buccaneers lost the NFC Championship Games in 1979 and 1999 but never blew a lead of this size.
In Tampa Bay, we do not yet know the heartache of a Game 7. We have never seen the losing side of such a game.
The Lightning went to Game 7 twice in 2004 and won both. On the other hand, the Lightning lost Game 6 both times and rebounded with the season on the brink.
The last four postseason baseball teams that lost Games 5 and 6 went on to lose Game 7. You have to go back to the Atlanta Braves in 1992 against the Pirates in the National League Championship Series to find a team that reversed its fortunes. And the Braves needed a three-run rally in the ninth to pull it off.
"We knew our starting pitching was going to give us a chance to win with (John) Smoltz on the hill in Game 7," said former Rays executive Scott Proefrock, who was in the Braves' front office in 1992. "And I think the Rays have that working for them with (Matt) Garza."
In the Rays' case, Game 6 had a screwball kind of feel, the type that never bodes well for a team in search of an omen. TBS had technical difficulties, so everyone watching at home missed Upton's home run, the only Rays highlight early on. Then home plate umpire Derryl Cousins had to leave the game after being hit by a foul ball, and the teams sat through a 15-minute delay in the top of the fourth.
And James Shields was clearly not the pitcher the Rays had been hoping to see. He walked three batters as the Red Sox took a lead in the third, the first time in his career he walked that many in the same inning at the Trop.
The Rays kept it close for most of the night but could not avoid their somber march to Game 7 this evening.
Game 7 is when heroes are made and dreams are realized. You remember Bill Mazeroski mostly because of a Game 7. You recall Jack Morris as one tough son of a gun because of a Game 7. You forever think fondly of Luis Gonzalez because of a bloop hit against the Yankees in a Game 7.
But none of that glory comes without a price. For every team dancing across the field, there is another coping with its misery. It was after a Game 7 in 1986 that Wade Boggs sat on a Shea Stadium bench with tears rolling down his cheeks. And it was Game 7 that turned Francisco Cabrera's name into a curse in Pittsburgh.
Sometime this evening, another memory will be made in Tampa Bay.
It could be glorious, or it could be heartbreaking.
It is up to the Rays.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]