ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The young Tampa Bay Rays shrugged off question after question about team psyche. They find it laughable that anybody believes they may not have the resolve to close out Boston in the AL championship series.
“It really is funny,” pitcher James Shields said Friday, some 15 hours after the defending World Series champion Red Sox forced Game 6 in the ALCS with the second-biggest comeback in postseason history.
It’s the type of defeat that might destroy some teams. But the Rays have been resilient all year and believe they have the makeup to rebound after not completing the job at Fenway Park on Friday night.
“I know where we’ve come from, where we are right now, and I have total faith that we’re going to finish this thing off,” manager Joe Maddon said, reflecting on Boston’s 8-7 win in Game 5.
“It’s about one moment at a time. We lost that game. That’s over with. There’s nothing we can do about that, and there’s nothing constructive we can take out of that, except I thought we played really well. I think that’s being overlooked.”
Despite blowing a 7-0 lead over the final three innings, the Rays won two of three at Fenway and are up in the series, three games to two.
Now, they’ve got two cracks at winning the pennant at Tropicana Field, where they compiled the best home record in baseball this season.
Shields, whose nickname is Big Game, will pitch Game 6 Saturday night against Josh Beckett, Boston’s struggling postseason ace who was lit up by Tampa Bay’s suddenly potent offense in Game 2.
“That was a tough loss. It was disappointing, but I woke up this morning feeling pretty good,” Shields said.
“When it comes down to it, they have more pressure than we do. They’re the defending champions. We’re a team that finished in last place last year.”
Even before the Rays left Fenway for the airport and a long flight that landed in Florida in the wee hours of the morning, Maddon had a good feeling about the way his players were handling the loss.
The Rays were seven outs from their first trip to the World Series before a seemingly comfortable lead slipped away.
The Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and were down 3-1 to Cleveland before coming back to win last year’s ALCS. Both times they went on to win the World Series.
“You don’t want to get to the situation where you are 1-and-3,” Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. “But you get to it, you’ve got to keep on trying. You’ve got to bring everything you’ve got into it and we have.”
The Rays are undaunted by history. They’ve see no reason why they won’t play well in Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7 Sunday night, when right-hander Matt Garza would pitch against Boston lefty Jon Lester.
“I would be surprised if there’s any hangover,” Maddon said, adding that he had not spoken with the players about putting Thursday behind them.
“For me to draw attention to it, I don’t like to do that. I think sometimes in an attempt to help, you can actually make things worse. I really believe that. … Baseball players a lot of times have their own mechanism to deal with things.”
The Red Sox realize they still have a steep hill to climb, considering they lost eight of nine at Tropicana Field during the regular season and split the first two games of the ALCS here.
But they also believe there just as much pressure on the Rays.
“We like our chances,” closer Jonathan Papelbon said. “It’s almost like, when you back us up and push us into the wall, that’s when we come out.”
The Rays have an unwritten rule that they don’t dwell on tough losses for more 30 minutes following a game.
When his players were talkative, even joking one with one another, when they got on the plane, Maddon was confident they were leading a bad three innings behind.
“I know we’re young, and again, I know we lack experience in a lot of ways. But we’re gaining it right now. My experience with our group is that we’ve been very resilient all year,” the manager said.
“I never want them to have a sense of desperation. That’s my whole point. I feel like if I’m doing my job right, they’re not going to feel that. If I’m doing my job inappropriately, they are going to feel that.”
Beckett, who battled injuries this season, became the first Red Sox pitcher to win four games in a single postseason a year ago.
The big right-hander has struggled in both of his postseason starts this year, however manager Terry Francona’s confidence in him isn’t shaken.
“When he is relaxed and comfortable and just executing pitches, there may not be a better pitcher in the game,” Francona said.
“Again, there’s been some things he’s fighting. Some of it is inconsistency because of work, and it was hard for him. But again, if you have to give a ball to somebody in Game 6, I can’t imagine not being excited to give him the ball.”