With all the Rays went through to get this far, there was something fitting about the way it ended, falling just short, done in by their own doing, a 3-1 loss to the rival Red Sox. Whatever embarrassment the Rays avoided in staving off a sweep didn't provide much solace as they sat glumly in frustration watching the Red Sox celebrate on the Tropicana Field turf. "That was painful to watch,'' said Rays reserve outfielder Sam Fuld, a native New Englander. "I got out of the dugout as quickly as I could.'' The disappointment was obvious in the quiet clubhouse as they dealt with the finality of their season being over. "Obviously it is disappointing,'' Ben Zobrist said. "It was a good year overall, but it's definitely tough right now."
Manager Joe Maddon insisted their season was still a success.
"Anytime you win 90-plus games, it's been a pretty good year, it really is, and regardless of what anyone else might want to say,'' he said. "From my perspective, I'm really proud of our group. I don't want to be cliche-ridden, but there's nothing to hang our heads about, their really isn't.
"A great battle all season. We were an up and down kind of a team, we hit some really good moments and some really bad moments. But at the end of the day you still win 92 games, that's pretty darn good.
"Retrospectively, we didn't get where we wanted to get, but I cannot be more proud or pleased with our group.''
The way the end unfolded Tuesday, before a second straight sellout crowd of 32,807, seemed appropriate.
A 1-0 lead and a strong evening by the bullpen after Jeremy Hellickson was pulled in the second was wasted by a seventh-inning sequence in which the Red Sox scored on a Joel Peralta wild pitch and an infield single. Then the Sox added another run in the ninth after Fernando Rodney loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batter.
The Rays used a postseason and team-record nine pitchers over the nine innings and had scheduled Game 5 starter David Price warming to pitch a potential 10th, but to no avail as they went down quickly in their final at-bats, Evan Longoria striking out to end it.
"When you're on a ride like this, you never see it ending,'' pitcher Alex Cobb said. "You only envision getting the prize at the end. When it doesn't, it feels like the rug is pulled out from under you.''
Tuesday was the fifth time in 10 days the Rays played a win-or-go-home game, and this time they were the ones packing, their 91-win regular season, their Texas tiebreaker (to get to 92) and Cleveland wild-card victories not enough. Instead, a third straight trip to the postseason ended with an American League Division Series ouster. The Red Sox move on to face either the A's or Tigers in the AL Championship Series.
"It's tough,'' Fuld said. "Anytime reality sinks in and the season is over, it's a tough pill to swallow. Especially given the good roll we've been on, and just feeling like we were kind of destined to win every single elimination game."
As the Sox broke into a wet-and-wild celebration in the visiting clubhouse, David Ortiz said they knew what they had accomplished in ousting the Rays.
"I have a lot of respect for those guys,'' he said. "They play ball. That was not easy.''
The Rays broke through for the game's first run in the sixth with a well-executed sequence. Yunel Escobar lined a ball that hit the screen atop the leftfield wall, and after watching it for a split-second, he hustled his way to second for a double. Jose Lobaton moved him to third with a groundout. Then David DeJesus sent him home, lining a single to right.
But it didn't last long, as the Sox went ahead 2-1 in the seventh. It wasn't much of a rally, though, as they scored on a wild pitch and an infield single.
Jake McGee walked pinch-hitter Xander Bogaerts with one out — "the tipping point,'' Maddon said — then gave up a two-out single to Jacoby Ellsbury. Peralta was summoned, as he is so often in treacherous situations, but his first pitch was trouble, a curveball bouncing past Lobaton, allowing Bogaerts to score and Ellsbury to advance to third.
Lobaton, the star of Monday's win, said he was screened by batter Shane Victorino showing bunt. "The last second I lose the ball, but it's no excuse," Lobaton said.
Victorino then made it worse, hitting a slow grounder to short and beating Escobar's throw to allow Ellsbury to score.
"It's really tough,'' Peralta said. "You come into that situation, try to do the job and you couldn't, so it just hurts a lot."
The decision to start Hellickson looked brilliant in the first inning as he retired the first three Red Sox in order on 12 pitches. But it looked like a bust by the second, when he walked the first two batters on four pitches each then allowed a single to Daniel Nava.
That made the answer to just how short a leash Hellickson would be on rather obvious, as Maddon made the slow walk to the mound after just 22 pitches, the shortest postseason outing by a Rays starter.
"Obviously it (stinks),'' Hellickson said. "But you can't wait for me to figure it out.''
The Rays obviously were hoping for more and better from Hellickson, pushing the idea that he would be more effective with extra rest, having not pitched Sept. 27. Maddon said they were planning for him to get through the lineup at least once, but from the look of things in the second knew they had better change course. "I could see it was just not going to work and we had to do something differently,'' he said. "We became a little more extemporaneous at that point.''
Maddon went through the whole bullpen, and used Game 1 starter Matt Moore for two innings as well.
"It was an interesting game,'' Maddon said. "We needed to score more runs against their pitching. We've had a hard time with that. But I thought our bullpen was fabulous.''
The Rays worked their way out of a number of jams in the early innings with some clutch pitching and nimble fielding.
After Hellickson was lifted with the bases loaded in the second, Jamey Wright came in and led the first escape act, getting Jarrod Saltalamacchia looking at strike three. First baseman James Loney took it from there, leaping to snare Stephen Drew's line drive then after realizing he wouldn't get to first in time making a cross-body throw to second that Escobar scooped to complete the double play.
After Wright walked No. 9 hitter Will Middlebrooks to open the third, Maddon summoned Moore from the bullpen, and he got a ground ball that the Rays turned into an unconventional but effective second-to-first-to-short double play.
And there was more. The Sox had two on with two outs in the fourth, and Moore got Saltalamacchia looking again. They did again in the fifth, and Alex Torres got Dustin Pedroia to ground out.
The Rays didn't do much offensively in the early innings, their first seven hitters going down in order against Boston starter Jake Peavy. And when they got two one-out singles in the third, it was the Red Sox's turn to get out of trouble, as DeJesus bounced into an inning-ending double play.
The Rays started the fourth with another single, Wil Myers beating out a ground ball to short for his first hit of the series after starting 0-for-13 and making the defensive misplay that turned Game 1. But Loney hit into a double play.
Being ousted by the Red Sox was probably only right, since they were the Rays' most vexing opponent, winning 15 of the 23 games between them.
"They were really good,'' Maddon said. "They didn't make any mistakes. You could see their grit. I talked about it from spring training on, I think they really promoted the character within that group. They're just gamers. They've got a bunch of gamers over there. ...
"They have all that stuff going on. They have a wonderful bullpen. They're just good, man. They're good. They're the reason we're sitting here not winning right now. They beat us all season. They beat us in a five-game series.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.