Teams Come Back For More in ALCS

Closer Jonathan Papelbon leads the celebration after the Red Sox rally from a seven-run deficit.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon leads the celebration after the Red Sox rally from a seven-run deficit. (By Elsa -- Getty Images)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

ST. PETERBURG, Fla., Oct. 17 -- Team A returned home Friday to sleep in its own beds for the weekend, having just gone into arguably the most intimidating, inhospitable road stadium in baseball and taken two out of three playoff games from the defending World Series champions. It leads a best-of-seven series, 3-2, has its ace lined up to pitch and needs only one win in the next two games, each of which would be played in the stadium where it posted the best home record in baseball this season, to go to the World Series.

Team B, on the other hand, is one loss from elimination, having recently endured a 24-inning stretch, spread across three games, in which it was outscored by a margin of 29-5. It must win two straight games on Team A's turf, and in the first of those games will send to the mound a physically diminished former ace who owns an 11.87 ERA this postseason.

The bare facts would suggest a mismatch in Saturday night's Game 6 of the American League Championship Series at Tropicana Field. But you can see where this is going.

Team A, of course, is the Tampa Bay Rays -- who, in addition to all of the above, also just got done blowing the biggest lead in a potential clinching game in the 105-year history of baseball's postseason.

And Team B, of course, is the Boston Red Sox. It feels like a mismatch, all right, as well as an unstoppable phenomenon with all the force of momentum, history and destiny behind it. All because of what occurred over three innings in Boston, as Thursday night turned into Friday morning.

The Red Sox' stunning 8-7 comeback victory in Game 5 was one for the ages, as they erased a seven-run deficit with seven outs to go against the Rays' normally sound bullpen -- scoring four in the seventh, three in the eighth and a single run in the ninth, when J.D. Drew singled over the head of Rays right fielder Gabe Gross to drive in the go-ahead run.

As two planes took off from Logan International in the wee hours Friday, bound for Florida, one thought was shared by all onboard: Did that really happen? The same question was there when the planes landed a couple of hours later, and when players from both teams finally got to sleep around 6 a.m.

"It's crazy," said Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, channeling his inner Yogi (only with better grammar). "This game is not over until it's over."

The Rays, who somehow lost a game in which they were up seven runs, spent most of Friday, a workout day, explaining that they were emotionally fine and still confident in themselves, which typically means you are not.

"It's the same way it's been all year," said James Shields, the right-handed ace who gets the ball for the Rays in Game 6. "We're relaxed, having fun, enjoying the moment. . . . [Thursday] night's game was a washout as far as we're concerned. We're still up 3-2. We're still in good shape."

Where Shields is correct is in the cold, hard facts of Game 6. The Rays were 57-24 at home this season; Shields, 26, was 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA. His opponent, Boston right-hander Josh Beckett, is winless in two ugly starts this postseason, failing to last past the fifth inning in either, and is hampered (even if his macho code won't allow him to admit it) by a strained oblique muscle suffered on the final weekend of the regular season.

But for Tampa Bay, the danger lies in the unforeseen. Just a few innings of baseball ago, the Red Sox were dead. And then they weren't anymore. Beckett, too, has appeared incapable of recapturing the greatness of 2003 or 2007. But when he takes the mound Saturday night, can anyone be sure he won't again?

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