One game left for Rays or Red Sox

Boston forces decisive Game 7 in ALCS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Now look who’s one win from the World Series.

All but eliminated until their stunning turnaround, the Boston Red Sox played like World Series champs from the start and beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-2 Saturday night to force a Game 7 in the A.L. Championship Series.

“It’s probably pretty appropriate. We come down to the last game, and whoever plays better gets to move on,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “We have a lot of respect for how good they’ve played, but we also really like our ballclub.”

Slumping Jason Varitek hit a tiebreaking home run in the sixth inning as Boston evened the ALCS at 3-all. No late drama needed by the Red Sox this time – they rallied from seven runs down with only seven outs left to win Game 5.

Now Jon Lester starts for the Red Sox tonight against Matt Garza in a rematch of Game 3, won by the Rays 9-1 at Fenway Park. Last year, the Red Sox trailed Cleveland 3-1 before winning three in a row, then sweeping Colorado for their second Series title in four seasons.

“It’s great to get to Game 7, to battle like this,” said Kevin Youkilis, who homered and drove in two runs. “We went out there and played like it was our last game. It was awesome.”

The young Rays, who never won more than 70 games in a season before this year, believe they’re up for the challenge.

“It’s all about how we react to the moment, and it’s a seventh game,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a great learning experience. For us to win that game would be something special for us, also. So it’s not about looking into the past. It’s about looking into the future right now.”

The pennant winner hosts the World Series opener Wednesday night against the well-rested Philadelphia Phillies, who won the N.L. pennant over the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games.

Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, who struggled in his first two starts of the playoffs, allowed two runs and four hits in five innings despite reduced velocity, and Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon combined for hitless relief.

“The guy fights back,” Boston slugger David Ortiz said of Beckett, who improved to 7-2 in 13 postseason games. “He’s hurting, and everyone knows that, but what he brings is something special.”

B.J. Upton tied an A.L. record in the first inning with his seventh home run of the postseason. After Boston went ahead 2-1, Tampa Bay tied it on Jason Bartlett’s fifth-inning homer. But the Rays didn’t get another hit, and the Red Sox improved to 9-0 in ALCS elimination games under Francona.

Varitek, the Red Sox captain, had been 0 for 14 in the series before his homer in the sixth off Shields, who allowed four runs and nine hits in 52/3 innings.

“He wears a ‘C’ on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse, including players, coaches, upper management, has for him,” Beckett said.

The Red Sox, trying to become the first repeat champions since the 1998-00 Yankees, were jubilant.

“We’ll take runs any way we can get it,” Francona said. “But the way it happened, and as hard as he’s worked, it meant a lot to everybody. “

Ortiz drove in the last run charged to Shields with an RBI single off J.P. Howell to pad the lead.

Boston bounced back from a 3-1 ALCS deficit in 1986 against the Angels, then in 2004 became the first major league team to win a best-of-7 postseason series when trailing 3-0, beating the Yankees for the pennant before sweeping St. Louis in the World Series. Then came last year’s comeback.

It was a strange night in different ways. The first 20 minutes of the game weren’t shown on television because TBS had an equipment failure.

And plate umpire Derryl Cousins left with a bruised collarbone after three innings, causing a 15-minute stoppage. Cousins was struck by a foul ball hit by Varitek in the second, but remained in the game until the delay. He was replaced by crew chief Tim McClelland, who had been working first base.

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