ALCS is taken to the limit

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Like this really was going to end in five games. The Boston Red Sox should have known better. The Tampa Bay Rays, too. Put together two great teams, full of immutable competitors and grand personalities, and anything shy of Game 7 would be some shame. Sort of like turning on your TV to watch a baseball game and seeing "The Steve Harvey Show."

Well, we've got our Game 7. We got Harvey likewise, though if the 20 minutes TBS spent broadcasting his show instead of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series was the penance, so be it. Because for the next 3 hours, 28 minutes on Saturday, the Red Sox proved again why they're the Red Sox and the Rays looked like they'd forgotten their exorcism and let the devil back in.

However material Boston's 4-2 victory at Tropicana Field was to the series having its do-or-die game at 8:07 p.m. Sunday, most of what happened in it faded thereafter, the specter of Game 7 looming as it does: like moon over sun in a solar eclipse.

As the Rays walked down the tunnel to their clubhouse following the loss, heads hung, a teammate tapped shortstop Jason Bartlett on the shoulder, leaned in and said: "It had to be this way." The Red Sox took the same stroll, heads high, and said the same thing to one another, only with a postscript: And we know how it has to end.

Last year, Boston recovered from a 3-1 ALCS deficit to snuff out Cleveland and swept Colorado in the World Series. In 2004, the Red Sox stormed back from 3-0 to beat the New York Yankees, then swept St. Louis for a championship. Accomplished, young, talented – the Rays are all. What they aren't is Boston, winner of nine consecutive ALCS elimination games and counting.

"We've been in there before, and we know what it takes to win games," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "It's not easy. It's not like we like to be in the situation. But I guess that's the way destiny has been the past few years."

Smile she has on the Red Sox, whose stunning 8-7 victory in Game 5 set up the Game 6 victory, which begat a Game 7 with Boston ace Jon Lester opposing Matt Garza. Lester, so composed, and Garza, so combustible, switched roles in Game 3, with Lester getting thumped and Garza making Boston hitters look silly for six innings.

Whatever momentum the Rays built winning Games 2, 3 and 4 – "They weren't even good games," Boston's Sean Casey said, "because we were getting crushed" – has vanished. There is no milk carton in baseball, either, nothing to assist in Tampa Bay's search to find how, exactly, it was seven outs with a seven-run lead from the World Series and now faces a one-game playoff.

"Nobody's panicking," Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "Nobody's worried. Awe? Shock? Yeah, of course. Rightfully so, I think."

After watching Josh Beckett, he of the tender oblique, discover his command and throw five strong innings? Sure. And witnessing Jason Varitek, he of the slow stick, somehow turn on a James Shields fastball and yank it over the right-field wall to give Boston a 3-2 lead? Of course. And gazing at their hitters, the ones with all that pop, wave at pitch after pitch from Boston's relievers, not mustering a hit over the final four innings, going flaccid at the worst possible time? Certainly.

Already it had been an odd evening. The pall of Game 5 remained, making the 1,300-mile trip from Fenway Park. Then came the TBS gaffe, due to a circuit-breaker malfunction in Atlanta, which caused the entire first inning and most of the second to go unaired in lieu of Harvey and his suits' enormous lapels. And the excessive 15-minute delay when home-plate umpire Derryl Cousins left the game after getting whacked in the collarbone with a foul ball.

Granted, normalcy hides when these teams meet. They've brawled. They've exchanged words. They can't get together without some kind of tension. In 24 games this season, the Rays hold a 13-11 advantage record-wise and the Red Sox have outscored them 114-107.

So, yeah, a Game 7 is appropriate, not just a treat for the TBS executives who were begging for a redo or the Rays fans intent on ringing their silly cowbells one more time or the Red Sox die-hards who had given up on their team, again, only to see it respond to that final chest compression.

"Heroes are made in Game 7," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. " … Guys hitting big home runs, making big plays in Game 7s of World Series and championship series. I'm sure there will be a hero tomorrow. We hope it's on our team."

In Tampa Bay's clubhouse, they will arrive at different times. Reliever J.P. Howell will show at 2:30 p.m., because he gets too wound up at home, and first baseman Carlos Peña will walk in at 4:30 p.m., because he'd rather spend the time with his family. In between the two, 23 other players will walk into the stadium, and some will click on their computers to check the team's fantasy football league, and others will down cups of coffee to amp up, and all will understand that by midnight, they will have either completed one of the most improbable World Series runs of all time or finished one of the great collapses.

"We win, we win," Rays outfielder B.J. Upton said. "We lose, we lose. That's the way it is."

As much as he sounded like Manny Ramirez before Game 5 of last year's ALCS – "If it doesn't happen, who cares?" Manny famously said, before it did happen – Upton was just trying to brush aside the enormity of what he and his teammates face. The Rays, ever the doormats, aren't used to October, let alone the reality of a Game 7.

Which is: "We go to the World Series if we win it."

Lester said that. He was cold in his assessment of how he needs to approach Game 7: execute pitches. Nothing else. The man is focused indeed, cancer on his checklist of vanquished opponents. A few months after beating that, he beat the Rockies in Game 4 of the World Series to win another championship.

At stake Sunday night is another shot, another opportunity for the Red Sox to taste redemption, another chance for the Rays to close the series, another occasion for lucky fans to tune in and, hopefully, see a baseball game – a baseball game, hopefully, for the ages.