ST. PETERSBURG – Joe Maddon, who does not like team meetings, held one early Wednesday morning in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse.
He told his players not to hang their heads.
He told them they played well with their backs against the wall during the last two weeks.
He told them next year will be their year.
Maddon said this while the Boston Red Sox formed a tight circle to the right of the pitchers mound and celebrated their 3-1 victory in Game 4 that clinched this best-of-five American League Division Series.
The Red Sox, who advanced to the American League Championship Series, left Tropicana Field to await the winner of the Detroit-Oakland series. The Rays said their goodbyes after being eliminated in the division series for the third time in their last three trips to the division series.
“I don’t want to be a cliché, but there’s nothing to hang our heads about,” Maddon said. “There really isn’t. A great battle all season. We were an up-and-down kind of team. We hit some really good moments and some really bad moments, but at the end of the day you still won 92 games. That’s pretty good.”
The up-and-down season ended on a down.
Jeremy Hellickson, a controversial choice to start Game 4, got only three outs and left after loading the bases with no one out in the second inning.
Hellickson, who struggled down the stretch while winning just one of his last 10 starts, said he wasn’t surprised with the quick hook.
“Eight straight balls (start the inning), in a game like this, you’re not going to wait around and figure that out,” he said.
Maddon then used eight relievers to try to save the season and send the Rays to Boston for Game 5, setting a postseason record for pitchers used in a nine-inning game at nine. David Price, who would have started Game 5, was warming in the bullpen in case the game went into extra innings as the Rays went down in order in the ninth inning.
“The plan was that Hellie would go longer than just three outs,” Maddon said.
The Rays took a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning when Yunel Escobar doubled off the top of the left field wall against Red Sox starter Jake Peavy and later scored on a one-out single by David DeJesus.
But that was all the offense Peavy and three relievers would allow.
“We needed to score more runs against their pitching,” Maddon said. “We’ve had a hard time with that.”
The Red Sox went ahead with two runs in the seventh inning, scoring both without hitting the ball out of the infield.
Jake McGee, Rays reliever No. 5, issued a one-out walk and two-out single that put runners on the corners. Maddon called for Joel Peralta to face Shane Victorino.
Victorino squared to bunt as Peralta bounced a curveball that skipped past catcher Jose Lobaton and allowed the tying run to score from third base.
“I just lost the ball at the end, lost it the last second, but that’s no excuse,” Lobaton said. “I couldn’t see where the ball bounced. Right now, I’m pretty sad.”
Peralta threw one wild pitch during his 80 regular season appearances.
“In any other situation I think he blocks that pitch,” Peralta said. “I would throw the same pitch any situation and I know he would block it.”
Compounding the problem was Jacoby Ellsbury, who was on first, running on the pitch and thus continuing to third base. That allowed him to score the go-ahead run on Victorino’s slow roller to shortstop.
“I came out on the good end with a broken-bat infield hit,” Victorino said. “I was able to beat it out. That’s the little things you look back on and talk about executing and doing the little things, doing whatever it takes to win.”
Peralta said it was a tough way for a season to end.
“Really tough,” he said. “Come into that situation and try to do the job and couldn’t. It hurt a lot.”
As they were for most of the series, the Rays were simply outpitched Tuesday. They managed only six hits and didn’t draw a single walk.
Wil Myers finally got a hit in the series, an infield single in the fourth inning, but was 1-for-16 in the four games. Evan Longoria had two hits in 13 at-bats, though one hit was the three-run homer that helped saved Monday’s game. Ben Zobrist had two hits in 14 at-bats.
Boston, meanwhile, drew eight walks Tuesday, and two of those scored. All their hits were singles, marking the first time they won a postseason game without an extra-base hit since Game 1 of the 1986 World Series.
“They had a great year, a lot of great players,” Zobrist said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go far.”
The Rays, as Maddon mentioned, won 92 games. They reached the postseason as the second of the two wild-card teams and beat the Indians in Cleveland to advance to the ALDS.
“It was a good year,” Zobrist said. “But it’s tough. It’s tough to take the loss.”
The magic that nearly blew the roof of Tropicana Field on Monday when Lobaton drove his game-winning, ninth-inning homer into the touch tank in center field didn’t materialize Tuesday. Joe Maddon’s Back-to-the-Wall Gang ran out of comebacks.
The Rays needed to beat the Blue Jays in the Toronto during the final day of the regular season just to set up the one-game tiebreaker with the Rangers in what became the 163rd game of the regular season. The Rays won that to earn the trip to Cleveland.
Then, after dropping the first two games in Boston, they staved off elimination Monday in a game that will be talked about for years.
Lobaton’s walk-off homer was the kind that can swing the momentum of a series, and the Red Sox knew that.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be a simple series,” said Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow, who struck out four in 1 1/3 innings Tuesday. “This is not a friendly place to play. I think we’re fortunate not to have the series go all five games.”
The Rays appeared to have some magic when Jamey Wright replaced Hellickson and escaped the second inning jam when James Loney robbed Stephen Drew of a two-run hit with a leaping catch of Drew’s line drive then doubled up Mike Napoli at second base after Loney failed to beat Daniel Nava back to first base.
But in the end the Rays went quietly.
“It (stinks) to end like this,” McGee said. “We battled back. We went to Texas, won there, won in Cleveland, then to play the Red Sox, we battled them all year, we were close to bringing it back to Boston.”
The Rays were 8-15 against the Red Sox this season ... Those nine Rays pitchers were the most in a nine-inning game in franchise history ... Escobar became the first player in team history to record multiple hits in three straight postseason games. He batted .467 ... DeJesus was 3-for-24 lifetime against Peavy before his RBI single. ... Peralta allowed both inherited runners to score. He allowed four of his 30 inherited runners to score during the regular season ... Hellickson turned in the shortest start in Rays postseason history ... The Red Sox advanced to the ALCS for the fifth time in the last 12 seasons by winning their first postseason series since beating the Angels in the 2008 ALDS.