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OFF THE PLATE: OCTOBER 2008

For the Rays, the Devil is Still in the Details

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Mark Kotsay ties up the game in the eighth on Coco Crisp’s clutch single to right field.

(Oct. 17, 2008)—BOSTON, Mass.—With three wins going into last night’s game in favor of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Boston Red Sox kept the American League Championship Series alive with 7-8 win in the bottom of the ninth.

While most of the game promised a four-game sweep with a Red Sox shutout on their home field, the Rays lost their 7-0 lead with a rally that started in the second half of the seventh inning. By that time, sports announcers had already talked about Rays fans celebrating on Floridian streets while “Fenway faithful”—the latter word sounding so pretentious when not following “Raider”—trickled out of their beloved Fenway Park.

Amid high winds, which seemed unable to blow the lingering dark cloud away from the Beantown diamond for most of the game, Sox fans suffered through one run after another by the likes of B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña.

But just when the mood couldn’t be darker in Fenway Park—with an impending win that would send the Rays into the World Series—Jed Lowrie doubled on a line drive to right fielder Gabe Gross. With Grant Balfour on the mound, and two outs later with Jason Varitek and Mark Kotsay landing fly balls into Upton’s mitt, along came Coco Crisp.

With Crisp’s single on a ground ball to left fielder Carl Crawford, and Lowrie on third, the stage was set. A single by Dustin Pedroia followed by a homer by David Ortiz resulted in a four-point rally, tasering Sox fans back to the arrogant enthusiasm that gives them their love ‘em or hate ‘em reputation.

Perhaps it was Sox legend or their current championship title that crawled into the heads of the Rays, seemingly causing a psychological breakdown and the Sox to dominate the remaining two innings. Tampa Bay coach Joe Maddon replaced Balfour with Dan Wheeler after the Sox seventh-inning wake-up, and defense held the disco-dancing Kevin Youkilis back for about a minute when he knocked a fly ball to right fielder Gross.

But that didn’t matter in the eighth, when Kotsay scored and tied up the game at 7. By the top of the ninth, it was the Tampa Bay fans biting their nails as the players broke a sweat. Boston defense looked confident as ever with Jonathan Papelbon on the mound, despite a single by Jason Bartlett and a walk by Upton. In the end, it was Youkilis, who got on base with a ground ball to third baseman Evan Longoria, who made it home for the winning point, thanks to J.D. Drew’s line drive to right field, which also put Jason Bay on third.

The Rays, who were the Devil Rays up until November 2007, will take on the Sox in their hometown of St. Petersburg on Saturday at 8:07 p.m., Eastern. While the champagne sits back in the fridge, the Sox, with their seven-point comeback, are celebrating the second largest postseason recovery in MLB history. Perhaps by the time the Rays hit Tropicana Field this Saturday, they will have exorcised the demonic energy representing a game loss from their performance once and for all. Certainly, the calm and collected Maddon will see to it.

“Nobody feels worse than the guys in our bullpen,” the charismatic Rays coach says. “We can’t dwell on it. We’ll lose for a half hour or so then move on.”

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