ST. PETERSBURG — The route was not the one they would have chosen given the frustration of seeing their first World Series berth slip away and their role Thursday as co-conspirators to the largest comeback in a postseason elimination game in baseball history.
But the destination is still definitely the preferred one as the Rays returned to Tropicana Field holding a 3-2 lead over the Red Sox and have the well-earned advantage of the final two games of the AL Championship Series at their homefield.
"Everyone's glomming onto the fact that we lost that game (Thursday) night and how we did, which we shouldn't have," manager Joe Maddon said Friday during some bleary-eyed media availability. "It should not have happened that way. But we still won two out of three and maintained homecourt advantage.
"It's working out in a sense the way we had planned it. Now we just have to go out and execute it."
The Rays, who had the majors' best home record, are trying to make it that simple.
They have two chances (starting tonight with James Shields on the mound against Josh Beckett) to get the one win they need to vanquish the defending champions and advance to the Series, which would open Wednesday at the Trop against the Phillies.
But first they have to get past what happened Thursday, when they had a 7-0 lead with seven outs to go and through a series of mess-ups and mistakes ended up losing 8-7 on J.D. Drew's walkoff single with two outs in the ninth.
Maddon insisted the players were fine after the game and found further proof in how normal they acted on the flight home, noting J.P. Howell's giggle, Carlos Pena's constant chatter and smile and how Carl Crawford "sashayed" down the aisle.
"I would be surprised if there is any hangover from it," Maddon said. "I really would."
The Rays have showed their resiliency throughout the season, rebounding from tough losses with resounding performances. Pena said he expects nothing less because they'll make nothing more of this loss than any others.
"We are extremely confident," he said. "I think the perception is that (Thursday's) game is worth five losses when in reality it is just one.
"If it would have been a tight game — 3-2, we had a guy at second and just couldn't get that hit — we would have been like, 'It's a loss.' It would have been worth exactly the same. So the only difference is the way we're perceiving this. We can either perceive it as a loss that was monumental and you can't ever recover from a coma. Or it's just a loss. We've lost before. We didn't go 162-0. We've got 65 losses.
"We choose to just scratch it off as a loss and look at this trip as a very successful trip because we took two out of three in Boston. When in reality, I think people were more like, 'I just hope they win one so they can bring it back to the Trop.' So not only are we back here, but we're here with a slight advantage."
In the obligatory assignment of the intangibles, the Red Sox, who came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Indians last season and 3-0 against the Yankees in 2004, certainly have the momentum. But they also still bear the pressure.
"They've got more pressure than we do," Shields said. "They're the defending champions. We're not. We were in last place in the league last year, and to get where we're at right now, we don't have as much pressure as they do."
Boston designated hitter/team psychologist David Ortiz agreed.
"It's on us because we're down," he said. "If they win one game, it's over. Got to come in and play."
The Rays wanted to end the series at Fenway, and they want just as badly to end it tonight, knowing they need to keep the Sox from getting any more confidence and press their advantage at the Trop.
"I think it's a very big deal," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "Homefield, we worked hard all year to get to this point, and it's huge to have Games 6 and 7 here.
"Hopefully, it's just Game 6."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org