After falling behind 3-1 in this ALCS, the Red Sox can cap yet another improbable comeback and reach the World Series for the second straight season with a win over the reeling Rays on Sunday night.
Boston forced Game 7—just as it did in 2004 and 2007—with a 4-2 win on Saturday.
“It’s probably pretty appropriate. We come down to the last game, and whoever plays better gets to move on,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “We have a lot of respect for how good they’ve played, but we also really like our ballclub.”
The once-downtrodden Rays, trying to keep what has been perhaps one of the greatest turnaround seasons in baseball history alive, appeared to have this series all but wrapped up after a 13-4 win on Tuesday.
But the Red Sox rallied from seven runs down with only seven outs left in Game 5 to win 8-7 on Thursday. On Saturday, they improved to 9-0 in ALCS elimination games under Francona.
Last season, Boston trailed Cleveland 3-1 before winning three straight, then swept Colorado for its second World Series title in four seasons. En route to their first championship in that span, the Red Sox lost the first three games to the New York Yankees in the ALCS before winning the final four contests.
“It’s all about how we react to the moment, and it’s a seventh game,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a great learning experience. For us to win that game would be something special for us, also. So it’s not about looking into the past. It’s about looking into the future right now.”
Lester, who pitched in relief during last season’s ALCS before starting and winning the World Series clincher, struggled during his first outing in this series. He hadn’t allowed an earned run in four previous postseason appearances - including last year’s matchup with the Rockies - before giving up four in 5 2-3 innings on Monday.
Lester allowed eight hits in that game, but has rarely had back-to-back poor showings this year. The 24-year-old left-hander went 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA in his previous seven starts against the Rays.
“You can’t get your emotions one way or another,” Lester said of this matchup.
Jason Varitek, Lester’s batterymate, snapped an 0-for-14 slide with his tiebreaking, sixth-inning solo homer off James Shields on Saturday. Varitek is batting .143 (10-for-70) against Tampa Bay this season, including the playoffs, but his veteran leadership has been invaluable in during this latest comeback.
“He wears a ‘C’ on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse, including players, coaches, upper management, has for him,” said Josh Beckett, who got the Game 6 win with five sharp innings.
Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis, meanwhile, homered and drove in two runs, and has hit safely in 12 of 13 career ALCS games.
“It’s great to get to Game 7, to battle like this,” said Youkilis, batting .370 (10-for-27) with two home runs, three triples and six RBIs in this series.
Youkilis, though, is 1-for-12 (.083) versus Garza, who was the winning pitcher on Monday, when he gave up one run and six hits while striking out five in six innings. The right-hander improved to 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA in seven starts versus the Red Sox.
“We had a feeling that they were going to make a push like this,” Garza said of Boston’s surge. “This Red Sox team doesn’t go down quietly. So we’re just going to come out and keep fighting like we’ve done all year.”
Upton has tied Troy Glaus (2002) for homers in a single postseason, and is one behind major league record-holders Barry Bonds (2002) and Carlos Beltran (2004). Upton, who hit only nine homers in 531 at-bats during the regular season, is batting .222 (4-for-18) against Lester.
The center fielder was one of the few bright spots at the plate for Tampa Bay, which was held to less than seven runs in this series for the first time since being blanked in Game 1.
Boston, meanwhile, won Game 6 despite going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
“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 those situations, but I guess it’s the way destiny has us the past years that we’ve won the World Series.”
Sunday’s winner hosts the World Series opener on Wednesday night against well-rested Philadelphia, which won the NL pennant in five games over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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