Rays make World Series pitch

The Red Sox had all the momentum, but in a Game 7, it's even better to have a lights-out hurler. Tampa Bay had two.

Topics: Baseball,

Here’s the secret to winning in the postseason: Get a good pitcher and have him throw a great game. Do that and you can overcome all kinds of momentum and destiny.

That’s how the Tampa Bay Rays played it Sunday, and Matt Garza pitched them into the World Series. He gave up a home run to Dustin Pedroia in the first inning and precious little else, working into the eighth and leaving with a 3-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

It took four more Rays pitchers to get through that eighth but they got through it. The fourth of them, rookie phenom David Price, pitched a scoreless ninth and the Rays, in their 11th season, the second in which they didn’t finish last in their division and the first in which they didn’t finish last or next to last, are pennant winners.

After the horrific meltdown of Game 5 Thursday in Boston, the Rays had played poorly at home in Game 6 Saturday, losing 4-2. The game turned on a weird middle-innings sequence during which the world seemed to be upside-down. In the bottom of the fifth inning Dioner Navarro, the Rays’ catcher, took off after what would have been his first stolen base of the year. He was thrown out — it was a busted hit and run.

That left Jason Bartlett, a slick-fielding shortstop whose bat is merely tolerated, to face Josh Beckett, having failed to get a bat on the previous pitch, dooming Navarro. He homered — just like he’d done one time this season — to tie the game.

What next, Jason Varitek hitting a home run?

In the top of the sixth the Sox went ahead on a home run by Varitek, who of late had been about as important to the Boston offense as he’d been to the Weezer rhythm section. Then they got an unearned insurance run thanks to a throwing error by Bartlett, the guy whose defense got him voted team MVP by the local baseball writers.

That Game 6 wasn’t a thriller but it was a tense October match, enjoyable but destined not to be remembered, a classic middle sibling between the incredible Game 5 turnaround and the always-memorable Game 7.

That is, before TBS’s colossal screwup caused the first 20 minutes of the game to go untelevised. People tend to remember things like that. The network released a statement saying two circuit breakers had tripped and a doohickey had failed to doohick, so a nation of baseball fans was left with a rerun of “The Steve Harvey Show.”

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Amazingly, TBS seemed to have no backup plan. It took several minutes before a crawl appeared announcing that technical difficulties were holding up the broadcast of the game, adding helpfully that the score was 0-0. Never mind not having enough redundancy built in to its procedures that a loss of signal would be virtually impossible, TBS had nothing more than Steve Harvey to offer once the signal went black.

How about updating the crawl with play-by-play? How about a phone feed from the announcers? It was a stunning display of unprofessionalism and lack of preparedness. Unforgivable. TBS has won a lot of points for simply not being Fox, for sparing viewers the gimmicks and sound effects and Jeannie Zelasko, but this was bush league.

The Sox became the 15th team to fall behind 3-1 in a seven-game series and then win two straight to force a Game 7. The last two times it happened — the 2004 and 2007 ALCS — it was the Red Sox who did it. Boston’s done it five times dating to the 1967 World Series, more than anyone else.

Teams that rally from 3-1 down to force a Game 7 have to win it, don’t they? They have all that momentum and everything, and sure enough, they usually do win.

Such teams were 11-3 in seventh games before Sunday and they’d won five straight. The last team that failed to complete the three-game comeback had been the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost the N.L. Championship Series to Atlanta on Sid Bream’s dash. Before that you have to go back to Cincinnati in the 1972 World Series to find a team that won Games 5 and 6 only to lose Game 7.

So when Pedroia launched Garza’s sixth pitch into the left field bleachers and Boston ace Jon Lester retired the first nine men he faced, it looked like the Rays were going pumpkin. But Akinori Iwamura’s base hit leading off the fourth broke up Lester’s perfect game and Evan Longoria’s two-out double to right scored Carlos Pena, aboard on a fielder’s choice, from first. Then Willie Aybar doubled to lead off the fifth and Rocco Baldelli singled him home.

By the time Aybar led off the seventh with a home run for a 3-1 lead, Garza had given up only one more hit, a one-out single to Jason Bay in the seventh, following a walk to J.D. Drew. Garza got Mark Kotsay to fly out, then struck out Varitek, making Saturday’s hero look a lot more like what he is, an aging catcher overmatched by a good young pitcher.

Another Bartlett error on Alex Cora’s grounder leading off the Boston eighth chased Garza and started a rally that, given the circumstances, figured to be fatal for the Rays. Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford all took a turn on the mound, and along the way a Coco Crisp single and a walk to Kevin Youkilis loaded the bases with two outs.

Rays manager Joe Maddon summoned Price, the top pick in the 2007 draft. Ticketed for near-future acedom, Price didn’t play pro ball after being drafted, then missed the first month of this season with an injury. He rocketed from A-ball to the majors in three months, allowing just three earned runs in 14 innings for the big club, then getting the win in relief in Game 2 of this series.

Price struck out Drew to end the inning, then, after walking Bay to lead off the ninth, struck out Kotsay and Varitek and got pinch hitter Jed Lowrie to ground into a fielder’s choice. Price began celebrating even before Iwamura handled a tricky hop, then found himself on the bottom of a wild underdog pile. There’s a decent chance Sunday night was the first chapter in the David Price legend.

It’s certainly a highlight of the first chapter of the Tampa Bay Rays story that anybody might want to read, unless he or she was a Red Sox fan. The Red Sox had momentum, history, destiny and tradition on their side Sunday. They even had a pretty good pitcher. But they ran into a better one. And then another.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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