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ONE LAST SHOT

A 3-1 ALCS lead is gone as an uninspired effort forces deciding Game 7.

There have been so many places the Rays have gone and things they have done for the first time during their thus-far amazing season.

And tonight, they get to experience another one: a win-or-it's-over Game 7 against the Red Sox, with a berth in the World Series against the Phillies at stake.

The Rays played their way into this position by not playing their usual way in Game 6 of the ALCS on Saturday, the 4-2 loss a team effort as a result of ineffective starting and relief pitching, shaky defense and a lack of clutch (or much) hitting, before a roaring Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 40,947.

"We're disappointed," starter James Shields said. "We were in a good position being up two games on them, one game on them, and we're going to try to fight back. Now it's do or die. We'll find out what we're all about.''

Saturday, Shields failed to get through the sixth inning, struggling a bit with his command and giving up three runs, and shortstop Jason Bartlett made a bad throw, just before J.P. Howell made a bad pitch, allowing a fourth. The Rays offense, meanwhile, was limited to four hits by Sox starter Josh Beckett and three relievers and solo home runs by B.J. Upton and Bartlett.

So they will play again tonight, with Matt Garza starting against Boston's Jon Lester, everyone available and everything at stake.

"There's no other way," said Cliff Floyd, one of a handful of Rays to go through a Game 7. "There's been a lot of talk about them being the champions. We have to take it from them. They're not going to give it away. They're always poised in tough situations."

The Rays, who had the best home record in the majors, want very much to believe their homefield will be the advantage - "Hopefully it's a little louder in here (tonight)," Upton said - though the Sox have won two of their past three here.

"I think we have the majority of the momentum,'' Evan Longoria said. "We're at home. That's a big, big plus for us. I think that gives us a big edge.''

And the Sox want very much to believe their experience will be to their advantage. As a team, because they won their ninth straight elimination game and have been here before, coming back from 3-1 against the Indians last year and 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004. And as individuals, as 19 of the players on their 25-man roster have been part of a previous Game 7, and only a few Rays have (Chad Bradford, Floyd and Dan Wheeler).

"We've been in there before and we know what it takes to win games,'' David Ortiz said. "And it's not easy. It's not like we like to be in this situation, but I guess that's the way our destiny has been the past few years that we have won the World Series.''

The Sox have more history in their favor - six of the seven teams to come back from a 3-1 LCS deficit to force a Game 7 have won it.

Having failed in two chances to secure their first Series berth, the Rays are hoping to make tonight's showdown as normal as possible.

"It's another game," Upton said. "Obviously it's a big one. You can't really let that go to your head. We just have to play our game."

But Boston's Dustin Pedroia said it's not really the same.

"It's real emotional," he said. "You want to try to do something early and get a lead so you can relax."

Upton gave the Rays a 1-0 first-inning lead with his AL record-tying seventh homer of the postseason, but the Sox answered back quickly as Kevin Youkilis homered to lead off the second, then went ahead by scratching out a run in the third. The Rays tied it in unlikely fashion in the fifth when Bartlett, who hit one homer during the entire season, took Josh Beckett deep with two outs and two strikes. But the Sox topped them as Jason Varitek, who'd been hitless in the series (0-for-14) and 3-for-28 (.107) in the postseason, knocked a 2-and-0 Shields fastball pitch over the right-centerfield fence.

Shields was frustrated that he failed to keep the Sox from coming back

They added another odd run when Coco Crisp followed with a single off Shields' left foot, went to third on Bartlett's errant throw after fielding Pedroia's grounder and scored on Ortiz's single.

"I just got lazy," Bartlett said. "That's going to eat at me all night."

Neither starting pitcher was at his best. Shields couldn't get through the sixth inning, charged with four runs (two on home runs) while throwing 109 pitches, including an uncharacteristic three walks in the third.

Beckett, pitching with a right oblique strain, didn't look comfortable or dominating and left after five, having allowed two runs on four hits, throwing 78 pitches. But he did, as he has before, what the Red Sox needed him to do, which was enable them to get to the bullpen with a lead.

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

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