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Saturday, October 18, 2008
Updated: October 19, 5:37 PM ET
Being on the ropes brings out the best in Boston

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The mere act of winning baseball games in October isn't enough for the Boston Red Sox. You get the sense that these guys aren't fulfilled unless they leave behind a trail of frayed emotions, crushed spirits and fractured psyches.

In the Boston clubhouse, "convenience" is a four-letter word.

Just think about poor Cleveland manager Eric Wedge, who must be experiencing some nasty flashbacks as he watches Tampa Bay fritter away a seemingly sure trip to the World Series. Or the Philadelphia Phillies. They know they'll open the World Series in an American League city Wednesday, but they have no idea whether they need to pack the Tommy Bahama summer wear or the L.L. Bean winter assortment.

And of course, let's take a moment to recognize manager Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays. They're a competitive and entertaining young club. But unless they find a way to succeed where their predecessors have failed, the Rays might soon discover that talent, home-field advantage and Mohawk magic are simply a recipe for postponing the inevitable.

The Red Sox tore out a chunk of Tampa Bay's heart Thursday when they erased a seven-run lead with seven outs remaining to steal Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. Now things are really getting serious. Boston relied on the pitching of Josh Beckett, some superb relief work and home runs by Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek to win 4-2 Saturday, and it will all come down to a climactic seventh game Sunday night at Tropicana Field.

"It's not like we like to be in this situation," Boston designated hitter David Ortiz said. "But I guess that's the way our destiny has been the past few years. Being against the ropes … that's what I call it. I'd rather just win the games and get the hell out of there."

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Game 6 began inauspiciously when TBS lost its feed because of technical difficulties and television viewers were treated to about 20 minutes of "The Steve Harvey Show." Although we have no eyewitness accounts, it's probably safe to assume that commissioner Bud Selig was not a happy guy.

Inside Tropicana Field, a sellout crowd of 40,947 was treated to yet another episode of "The B.J. Upton Show." Tampa Bay's torrid center fielder drove a Beckett fastball off the "C-ring" catwalk in left field in the first inning, and the Rays took a quick 1-0 lead.

It's becoming more apparent with each start that Beckett won't be Beckett for the rest of October. His velocity is down and his command is spotty, and the only reason no one knows how badly his oblique muscle is bothering him is that he's taken a personal vow of silence on the topic.

Beckett's main objective Saturday was to find a way to keep Boston in the game. The Red Sox wanted him to "leverage the ball downhill," in the words of pitching coach John Farrell, so that if he were to miss with his pitches, they would be down in the zone where he could minimize the damage.

Jason Varitek
Jason Varitek's go-ahead solo home run in the sixth inning propelled the Red Sox to a 4-2 win over the Rays in Game 6.
Both Beckett and Tampa Bay starter James Shields had to deal with a 15-minute delay in the third inning when plate umpire Derryl Cousins left the game after taking a foul ball off his collarbone in the second. How much was Beckett living on the edge? The Red Sox began warming up lefty Javier Lopez in the bullpen in the fourth inning while Beckett was working on a one-hitter.

Still, Beckett hung around. He gave up one more solo shot to shortstop Jason Bartlett but departed after five innings with the game tied at 2. Score one for chutzpah.

"You can't say enough about his competitive spirit," Farrell said. "He got it handed to him the last two starts against these guys and the Angels. But that's where his experience comes in. He recognizes fully the physical condition he's dealing with. But he doesn't make excuses and look for an out, so he's going to go out and compete with what he has. That's what he did [Saturday night]."

Beckett hung in long enough for another gritty guy to produce the big hit. Varitek, Boston's beloved captain, has endured a trying season. He filed for divorce from his wife of 12 years this past summer and looked like a man in the midst of a steep decline on his way to hitting .220 with a .359 slugging percentage. He's a free agent this winter, and there's a decent chance his 12-year tenure in Boston will end.

But Varitek is still a fine defensive catcher who's emotionally invested in his pitching staff. And when you watch him slump into his chair after games, bone-tired and wrapped in ice packs, it's impossible to question his commitment.

"When Tek walks in the door at 1 in the afternoon, everybody feels his presence," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "He doesn't have to say anything. That's the type of teammate and player he is. Everyone looks to him for advice and looks up to him. That's why he's the captain of this team."

And that's why it was so appropriate that Varitek's sixth-inning home run -- his first long ball since Sept. 15 at Tropicana Field -- gave the Red Sox a lead they never relinquished.

"That was a huge hit for us," Pedroia said. "It erases everything."

Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett pitched only five innings, but he helped out enough to prolong the Red Sox's season for yet another game.
So where does the series go from here? It's Boston's Jon Lester against Tampa's Matt Garza in Game 7. It's the Red Sox, who in recent years rallied from a 3-0 series deficit against the Yankees and 3-1 against Cleveland to make the World Series, against the youthful Rays, who've never experienced anything quite like this before.

Given how closely matched these teams were during the regular season, maybe it's appropriate they're going the distance.

"Some guys were talking about that [Saturday in the clubhouse], and they said it couldn't be any other way," Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "The Red Sox are the champions, and you have to take it from them. They're not just going to give it away. They know how to win and come back. They stay very poised in tight situations."

Call it a flair for drama or the baseball version of rope-a-dope. If recent history means anything, the Red Sox have the Rays precisely where they want them.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.