ST. PETERSBURG — There definitely was a different look on the Rays' faces by the time Game 2 ended early this morning.
As David Ortiz peeked through the mass of players piled up in the infield to celebrate the 9-8 11-inning win, he saw jubilation and exhilaration, with a bit of relief and a tad of exhaustion.
"They look more like the Rays,'' Ortiz said. "That's pretty much how they play. Those guys, when you get late in the game and you play close games like that, they win a lot of games.''
After Ortiz said the Rays looked rattled on the stage of Friday's ALCS opener, and manager Joe Maddon agreed, they responded with a tenacious effort Saturday.
The Rays came back from deficits of 2-0, then 3-2, then 6-5 to take an 8-6 lead in the fifth, gave it up in the eighth when the Sox scored on Dan Wheeler's extremely wild pitch, then came back yet again to win it in the 11th.
B.J. Upton delivered a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded off Sox reliever Mike Timlin that scored Fernando Perez to launch the celebration.
Around the Rays clubhouse, players struggled to put the game in perspective.
"I don't know if I can,'' said reliever Dan Wheeler, who played a huge role. "This was just an amazing game.''
"There's no words for that,'' reliever Trever Miller said.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman said it was a perfect reflection of everything they do.
"I think you saw a little bit of our entire season in an 11-inning game,'' Friedman said. "It's been this way for us all year. Nothing's been easy, we have a flare for the dramatic and tonight was no exception.''
It was the 12th walkoff win of their amazing season, and obviously the most significant, as they avoided an 0-2 hole by tying the best-of-seven ALCS 1-1. The teams get a much-needed day off today, with Game 3 set for Monday afternoon at Fenway Park.
"To come out on winning end of that it was enormous for us,'' Miller said. "And I hope just as enormous on the other side for those guys, to give us a little edge going into Boston for that first game.''
The game, which hit the three-hour mark in the sixth inning, lasted 5:27, ending shortly before 1:40 a.m. before a roaring Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 34,904 that is sure to sleep in this morning.
There were big blasts, the seven home runs (all by the top of the fifth inning) marking a record for an ALCS game and just the fourth time that many have been hit in any postseason game.
There were some huge outs by the bullpen after short and ineffective outings by both starters, Scott Kazmir and Boston's Josh Beckett.
There were some typical Rays rallies, such as the three-run fifth that featured a walk and a key stolen base by Upton, then RBI hits by Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford.
There were some significant mistakes, topped by Wheeler's 2-and-0 wild pitch in the eighth that soared so high it glanced off the glove of leaping catcher Dioner Navarro, allowing Dustin Pedroia to score the tying run as Navarro's toss back to the plate was also errant.
And there were heroics at the end for the Rays, after Boston manager Terry Francona decided 18 pitches and 11/3 innings were enough for closer Jonathan Papelbon. The Sox turned to veteran Timlin, and that turned the game in the Rays' favor.
Navarro drew a leadoff walk, and Ben Zobrist, who was trying to bunt, also walked, sending pinch-runner Perez to second. Both runners, breaking on the pitch, moved up on Jason Bartlett's bouncer to third. The Sox intentionally walked Akinori Iwamura.
Upton followed with a fly to medium right and Perez raced home ahead of J.D. Drew's throw.
Upton said he was just trying to put the ball in play.
"We had a quick runner at third base,'' Upton said. "My biggest thing wasn't striking out there. Just make contact. Put a little pressure on them to make a play.''
Perez said he was just trying to make it work.
"I was figuring if it was anything close,'' he said. "(Third-base coach Tom Foley) didn't say anything. We were just kind of looking at each other, waiting for somebody to say something. It was a funny moment. He was watching it, and looking at me, trying to read my facial expressions. I was basically trying to read whether he'd be mad at me if I went, cause I really wanted to go. … I talked to him afterwards, and he was happy with the decision."
The focus was on the winning run, but the Rays wouldn't have been in that position if not for Wheeler, who threw 48 pitches in working 31/3 innings, his longest stint in four years, and rookie lefty David Price, who got the final two outs for his first big-league win.
"There's so many guys that did such a wonderful job tonight, but how about Dan Wheeler?'' manager Joe Maddon said. "What he did tonight is truly spectacular.''
The wild pitch in the eighth allowed the Sox to tie, but Wheeler made up for it, as Maddon had used his two primary middle men, Grant Balfour and J.P, Howell, early, and seven pitchers in all.
Wheeler said he was going to do whatever was needed.
"I told them, whatever you guys need. That's just how I do it,'' Wheeler said. "It's playoff time. There's no holding back.''
Said Miller: "I went up and asked him if he was done after three and he said, 'Nope,' and I went, 'All right, you're my hero.' ''
And then there was Price, who walked his first batter, then settled in.
"It obviously has greater emphasis than any other game I've ever played in. But I tried to put it in perspective and say, 'It's still 60 feet, 6 inches to home plate,' " he said. "So it's just the same thing I've been doing for 22 years.''
The Rays got homers from Longoria (a two-run shot, snapping his 0-for-13 skid, following a pregame chat with Maddon), Upton in the third (his fourth of the postseason) and Cliff Floyd in the fourth.
The Sox got a pair from Pedroia, his first-round slump apparently over, and back-to-back shots in the fifth from Kevin Youkilis (off Kazmir to tie the score at 5) and Jason Bay (off Grant Balfour to put the Sox up 6-5).
Kazmir had another rocky start, throwing 38 pitches in the first inning (one more than in his division series start against the White Sox) and working only into the fifth. He allowed five runs on six hits (three homers) and needed 98 pitches to do so.
Beckett, looking nothing like the postseason ace he is, was worse. He, too, failed to get out of the fifth, allowing eight runs on nine hits.
Kazmir escaped the first allowing just two runs, and the Rays battled back to give him a 5-3 lead going into the fifth, but he didn't handle it well.
He gave up Pedroia's second homer of the night on his second pitch. Then with one out, and with bullpen coach Bobby Ramos tipping his cap to indicate Balfour was ready, Maddon left Kazmir in to face Youkilis. Youkilis knocked a 1-and-0 pitch, Kazmir's 98th and last of the night, over the leftfield fence to tie the score at 5.
Then again, bringing in Balfour didn't work out too well either, as he gave up a homer on a 2-and-2 pitch to Bay, putting the Sox ahead 6-5.
Boston pitching coach John Farrell was ejected for arguing balls and strikes during Zobrist's at-bat.
Facing the possibility of being down 0-2 and going to Boston, the Rays made it clear how big the win was,
"It was like a prize fight and it went for the decision, and we won,'' Perez said. "It's huge to win. It would have been hugely deflating to lose that game. So it's real big.''
Said Wheeler: "We really needed this one.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com