ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — When the champagne stopped flowing in the visitor’s clubhouse, the Boston Red Sox took the celebration back out to the stands at Tropicana Field so that family and friends could share some of the fun.
A year after finishing in last place, the AL East champion Red Sox won 97 games to match St. Louis for the best record in baseball. Now, they’re moving on to the AL championship series for the first time in five years.
“I think at this point it really doesn’t do any good to kind of look at where we were,” reliever Craig Breslow said after coming out of the bullpen to give the team a huge boost in a 3-1 victory that ended Tampa Bay’s season.
Shane Victorino’s infield single snapped a seventh-inning tie and Dustin Pedroia’s ninth-inning sacrifice fly provided insurance for the Red Sox.
Koji Uehara got the final four outs — one night after giving up a game-winning homer — and Boston rebounded to take the series in four games.
There was a sense of relief in finally getting past the Rays, who have been a tough matchup for Boston over the past six seasons. Counting three wins in the ALDS, the Red Sox won 15 of 23 meetings between the teams this season.
“I’m assuming that the next opponent we have is going to be as tall a challenge as Tampa is,” manager John Farrell said.
Both managers mixed and matched all night in a tense game that felt more like a chess match. Desperately trying to force a fifth game, Rays skipper Joe Maddon used nine pitchers — a postseason record for a nine-inning game — and had ace David Price warming up for a potential 10th inning.
“The way it was working at the beginning there, I could see it was just not going to work and we had to do something differently,” Maddon said. “We became a little bit more extemporaneous at that point.”
Making their fourth playoff appearance in six years despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the budget-minded Rays have not advanced past the division series since reaching the 2008 World Series.
Xander Bogaerts scored the tying run on Joel Peralta’s wild pitch in the seventh and Victorino followed with an RBI infield single. Pedroia drove in Bogaerts with a sacrifice fly in the ninth to make it 3-1, and Uehara struck out Evan Longoria to end it.
The Rays retreated to a solemn clubhouse.
“Obviously, everybody is disappointed right now. Joe (Maddon) came in here and said to not hang our heads and remember that we had our backs against the wall several times and played really well to get to this point,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “It was a good year overall, but it’s tough to take the loss.”