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Closing Time: Red Sox surge past Rays, advance to ALCS

10.09.13 at 12:30 am ET
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Jacoby Ellsbury celebrates scoring the go-ahead (and eventual winning) run of the Red Sox' 3-1 victory over the Rays. (AP)

Jacoby Ellsbury celebrates scoring the go-ahead (and eventual winning) run of the Red Sox’ 3-1 victory over the Rays. (AP)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One series down, two left for glory.

In what became one of the most memorable high-wire acts in Red Sox postseason history, the Red Sox claimed a breathless 3-1 victory over the Rays to win the best-of-five American League Division Series, 3-1, and advance to the American League Championship Series for the 10th time in franchise history and the first time since 2008.

The extraordinary drama of the postseason was underscored when Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson opened the second inning by walking the first two hitters and then allowing a single by Daniel Nava to load the bases. With the bases loaded and no outs in the second inning of a scoreless game, Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon wasted no time in pulling the plug on a starter who’d been entirely ineffective down the stretch and turning the game over to his bullpen. The move paid immediate dividends, as right-hander Jamey Wright punched out Jarrod Saltalamacchia looking on a dazzling curveball and then, with one out, Stephen Drew‘s bullet was snared with a jump from Rays first baseman James Loney, who threw to second (where shortstop Yunel Escobar made a nice pick) to complete an inning-ending double play.

The decision to go to the bullpen so early meant that the game assumed a late-innings feel even in the second inning, with each pitch feeling as if it was a decisive momentum swing waiting to happen. That being the case, the response by Sox starter Jake Peavy to sail through a seven-pitch, 1-2-3 second inning represented a critical rebuttal to Tampa Bay’s extraordinary Houdini act.

With the game thus having cleared the second with no score, a pitcher’s duel was underway, with both teams remaining scoreless into the sixth. Finally, Tampa Bay broke through for a run and a 1-0 lead against Peavy in the sixth, only to have the Sox return serve with a two-run seventh, an opportunistic rally that featured a head-turning decision by Sox manager John Farrell to have Xander Bogaerts pinch-hit for Stephen Drew, setting in motion a small-ball rally that consisted of a Bogaerts walk, a two-out single by Jacoby Ellsbury to put runners on the corners and then a run-scoring wild pitch that tied the score and a Shane Victorino infield single to plate Ellsbury from third.

From there, the Sox bullpen dominated, with Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara collaborating for the final 10 outs of the game (with the Sox achieving a measure of breathing room with an insurance run in the ninth). That, in turn, set the stage for the Sox to turn Tropicana Field — the venue of heartbreak after Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS — into a staging ground for celebration.

The Red Sox will play the winner of Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 5 between the Tigers and Athletics for the right to advance to the World Series.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Craig Breslow was summoned from the bullpen with one on and two out in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the left-hander answered the call by striking out James Loney to keep the game at a 1-0 spread and then, after the Sox took the lead in the top of the seventh, returning to the mound and striking out the side in the bottom of the frame. Breslow mowed through the heart of Tampa Bay’s lineup in order, punching out Evan Longoria (slider), Ben Zobrist (slider) and Desmond Jennings (changeup) for just the second four-strikeout game of his career, and the first since accomplishing the feat in 1 2/3 innings with the A’s in 2010.

Breslow even remained in the game for the start of the eighth, eliciting one more out (a groundout) before an infield single ended his outing after 1 2/3 shutout innings. The left-hander earned the victory with his effort.

– Breslow’s work was followed by five outs from Junichi Tazawa (who punched out left-handed pinch-hitter Matt Joyce) and four outs by closer Koji Uehara.

Jake Peavy was dominant for most of his outing, cruising through five shutout innings in just 56 pitches before the Rays got to him for a run in the sixth (on a Yunel Escobar double, an advance to third on a Jose Lobaton grounder and a single to right by David De Jesus). A strong case can be made that he deserved a better fate than to be removed after just 5 2/3 innings based on the nail-biting circumstances of the game. Peavy had entered the game having permitted 13 earned runs in 9 2/3 postseason innings spanning his two playoff starts (one in 2005, one in 2006), but he’d long insisted that both struggles reflected significant injuries through which he was trying to pitch.

On Tuesday, even though he did not get a decision, Peavy still gave credence to that suggestion, carving up the Rays until his hiccup in the sixth. Unfortunately for him, that came in a game where he was afforded no margin for error by his offense. Still, he can take solace in the fact that with the Sox advancing, he will have another opportunity to start in the postseason.

– In a fascinating reversal that belied his pregame comments suggesting that there was “sound reasoning” for staying with Stephen Drew over Xander Bogaerts against left-handed reliever Jake McGee on Monday, Red Sox manager John Farrell elected to have Bogaerts hit in Drew’s stead with one out and the bases empty in the top of the seventh. Bogaerts negotiated a walk that set in motion the Sox’ go-ahead rally, advancing to third on Ellsbury’s single and then scoring on a wild pitch by reliever Joel Peralta. Drew, it is worth noting, had not walked against a left-hander since Aug. 27.

Bogaerts would add another walk in the ninth, this time as the leadoff hitter against Rays closer Fernando Rodney.

– Though he went just 1-for-4 with a bloop single, Jacoby Ellsbury proved a difference-maker with his bat and legs. His bloop hit sustained the Sox’ rally in the seventh, and then his ability to advance to third on a wild pitch (taking second on a steal and then remaining on his feet and hustling to third) positioned him to score the game-winning run on Victorino’s infield single.

Daniel Nava, after going hitless in his first career postseason game on Monday, collected his first playoff hit (a single to load the bases and knock out Hellickson) and also walked twice.

David Ortiz extended his streak of times on base to seven in a row with a walk and single in his first two plate appearances before he finally was retired when his smash to right was gloved by shifted second baseman Ben Zobrist, who threw to first for an out.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 0-for-2 with a pair of punchouts, most notably with the bases loaded and no outs in the top of the second when the Sox had a chance to break the game open early. Farrell elected to replace him with a pinch-hitter (Jonny Gomes) against left-hander Jake McGee in the top of the seventh. He stranded five.

Mike Napoli went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts. Given the Rays’ reluctance to attack Ortiz (a pattern that other teams may follow in subsequent rounds), the significance of Napoli in the lineup is considerable.

– Nava was caught stealing in the eighth, ending a run of 45 consecutive successful stolen base attempts by the Sox.

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