David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Red Sox must have figured something had to give Tuesday night in Game 4. The walks, the line drives, all those double plays. It felt like the Rays could keep frustrating them forever, taking away the game-breaking hits, killing rallies, erasing any hint of a run.
Finally, in the seventh inning, the AL East champs got their chance. After cruising through the regular season, and winning 97 games, this Division Series was starting to get a little scary. Once the Rays took a 1-0 lead, the Tropicana Dome began to feel suffocating -- right up until a rookie shortstop named Xander Bogaerts, sent in as a pinch hitter, drew a one-out walk off lefthanded reliever Jake McGee.
It was the move Red Sox manager John Farrell didn't make Monday night, sticking with Stephen Drew, lefty on lefty, only to get burned. This time, Farrell went the other way, and Bogaerts set the wheels in motion for an ALCS berth.
With two outs, Jacoby Ellsbury punched a single to centerfield, and the speedy Bogaerts easily scooted to third. That's when the Red Sox got their lucky bounce.
To that point, the madcap bullpen strategy of Rays manager Joe Maddon had worked to perfection. He pulled starter Jeremy Hellickson with the bases loaded and none out in the second inning -- though he had yet to surrender a run. When the Rays miraculously escaped that jam, thanks to James Loney turning a leaping grab into a double play, Maddon used three more pitchers to get him into the seventh, then called on Joel Peralta to face Shane Victorino.
After such deft bullpen management, what could go wrong? It didn't take very long to find out. Peralta's first pitch skipped in the dirt and catcher Jose Lobaton -- Monday's walk-off hero -- couldn't smother it. The ball bounced wildly toward the Rays' on-deck circle and Bogaerts scored easily with the tying run.
It was hard to believe -- and more difficult for the Rays to stomach. After stifling Boston's powerful offense for most of the night, this is how the Red Sox would get their run? Problem was, they weren't quite finished yet, and it would get even more frustrating for the Rays.
Ellsbury was running on the pitch, so he sprinted around to third, and he turned out to be the game-winner. Victorino followed up with a slap grounder to shortstop Yunel Escobar, who was playing just deep enough -- and the ball hit slowly enough -- for the Red Sox to take advantage. Victorino beat the throw by a half-step, pumping his fist as he crossed the bag, and Ellsbury set off a celebration in the Sox dugout.
By then, the champagne was probably being put on ice. David Ortiz struck out to strand two, but Boston had its lead with nine more outs left to get. Craig Breslow handled four of them -- striking out the side in the seventh inning -- and that allowed Farrell to breathe a little easier. Junichi Tazawa whiffed pinch hitter Matt Joyce for the second out of the eighth inning, and in came Koji Uehara.
For Uehara, this was more than just an opportunity to close out the series -- it was a shot at redemption. The previous night, Uehara teed up the winning homer to Lobaton, who deposited the ball into the fish tank in right-centerfield. It had been 142 consecutive batters since Uehara had surrendered a home run, dating to Jose Bautista on June 30, and that was a bad time for a streak-buster.
In hindsight, Uehara can now call it character-building. He whiffed David DeJesus to end the eighth, and an ugly ninth paved the way to an upcoming ALCS with the winner of Thursday's Tigers-A's Game 5.
Worst to first, and now four wins away from the World Series. Boston is not only a happy baseball town again, it's getting closer to another title.