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.
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, who 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.
And they got there because manager Joe Maddon, criticized for his bullpen handling in a 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.
Dustin Pedroia gave the Sox a 1-0 lead six pitches into the game. The Rays tied it in the fourth on an impressive swing by Longoria, who took a 2-and-2 Jon Lester pitch to rightfield, and good baserunning by Carlos 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 nonplay on Dioner Navarro's slow grounder to the hole. Then Baldelli grounded a single by third baseman Kevin Youkilis.