Rays beat Red Sox to reach World Series

ST. PETERSBURG

By Wednesday, there undoubtedly will be more questions, such as how the Rays will handle the stage of their first World Series. But Sunday night, they left no question about their ability to respond to the pressure of a win-or-it's-over Game 7 for the American League championship, ousting the defending champion Red Sox in a 3-1 thriller. They clinched their first pennant at 11:40, when Akinori Iwamura fielded Jed Lowrie's hard grounder and tagged second base, launched a wild celebration that might last until Wednesday's opening game of the Series, against the Phillies at Tropicana Field. They got there because Matt Garza, the fiery right-hander acquired in Andrew Friedman's bold off-season trade with Minnesota, pitched spectacularly into the eighth before a throbbing Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 40,473.

They got there because of big hits by two newcomers, heralded rookie Evan Longoria, who doubled in the tying run, and seemingly bit player Willy Aybar, whose provided a cushion with his seventh-inning homer. And an even bigger one by an old favorite, Rocco Baldelli, who singled in the go-ahead run in the fifth.

They got there because manager Joe Maddon, criticized for his handling of the bullpen in the historic Game 5 collapse, manipulated brilliantly through the eighth, using four relievers to face five batters and get three outs, culminated by David Price's strikeout of J.D. Drew with a 97-mph fastball.

And they got there, as simple as it sounds, because they believed they would. Refusing to get down after Thursday's shocking loss, or get intimidated by Sunday's stage — the 14th Game 7 played for the right to reach the Series — they were quietly confident throughout the afternoon, and calmed by a pre-batting practice speech from Carlos Pena.

Maddon, who has made one-day-at-a-time his mantra, spent most of the day uncharacteristically looking ahead.

"It's just been a wonderful year, and I want it to continue," he said about 3½ hours before first pitch. "I'm visualizing standing on the third-base line in Philadelphia for Game 3 (of the World Series). That's been in my mind all day."

The Rays were seven runs up and seven outs away from the AL pennant Thursday in Boston when the Sox rallied to stage the greatest comeback in a postseason elimination game, and when they lost that night and again Saturday, it appeared they might not recover.

And when Dustin Pedroia gave the Sox a 1-0 lead six pitches into Sunday's game, it didn't look any better. But Garza was dominating, allowing virtually nothing else through his seven-plus spectacular innings.

When the Sox threatened in the seventh, with a one-out walk and a single, Maddon went to the mound with two relievers warm. Maddon left Garza in, and he responded, getting Mark Kotsay on a fly to right and striking out Jason Varitek.

Lester, the lanky left-hander, held the Rays without a hit through the first three innings, then gave up solo runs in the fourth, fifth and seventh.

The Rays tied the score on an impressive swing by Longoria, who took a 2-and-2 Lester pitch to rightfield, and good baserunning by Pena, who came around from first, on an aggressive call by third-base coach Tom Foley, and slid in ahead of Pedroia's slightly off-line relay.

They took the lead on three straight hits to open the fifth, starting with Aybar's double into the leftfield corner. The big play was fill-in shortstop Alex Cora's non-play on Dioner Navarro's slow grounder to the hole, Cora making the grab but not a throw. Then Baldelli, the Rhode Island native and fabulous comeback story, grounded a single by third baseman Kevin Youkilis.

Garza made 118 good pitches, and Navarro made one extremely good throw, nailing Pedroia (who walked on an 11-pitch at-bat) trying to steal second as Garza struck out David Ortiz to end the sixth.

The Rays became the second team in major-league history to reach the World Series after having the worst record the year before, joining the 1991 Braves, who lost to the Twins.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

>>FAST FACTS

Making history

2 Teams to reach the Series after having the worst record the year before, the Rays and 1991 Braves

3 Teams to reach the Series after 10 or more consecutive losing seasons, the Rays, 1914 Braves and 2006 Tigers

11 Expansion teams to reach the Series, 7th time in the last nine years

Rays beat Red Sox to reach World Series 10/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 5:54pm]

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