ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Down to their last chance, the Tampa Bay Rays left no doubt they were World Series-worthy, after all.
The young Rays completed a stunning run to their first pennant, holding off the defending champion Boston Red Sox 3-1 Sunday night behind Matt Garza's masterful pitching in Game 7 of the AL championship series.
The Rays nearly let it slip away when they blew a seven-run lead late in Game 5 and lost meekly Saturday night. But when rookie David Price struck out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded to end the eighth inning, Tampa Bay showed it had plenty of resolve, too.
Baseball's doormat since starting play in 1998, the Rays were a 200-1 shot to win the World Series before the season started. Now, they'll host the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 Wednesday night.
Willy Aybar homered and Evan Longoria and Rocco Baldelli also drove in runs to support Garza, who limited the defending champions to Dustin Pedroia's first-inning homer and Jason Bay's one-out single in the seventh to end Boston's bid for a third pennant in five years.
Now they open their first Fall Classic at home on Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies as the first team since the 1991 Atlanta Braves to go to the Series a year after finishing with the majors' poorest record.
Four more wins and they'll become the first team to go from worst in the majors to World Series champion in just one season.
Longoria's fourth-inning double off Jon Lester erased a 1-0 lead the Red Sox took on Dustin Pedroia first-inning homer. Baldelli's single on an 0-2 pitch put the Rays ahead in the fifth after Aybar doubled and Dioner Navarro reached on an infield single.
Garza took the mound for the biggest game of his life with something, perhaps cotton balls, stuffed in his ears to help drown out the noise at sold-out Tropicana Field. He walked David Ortiz after giving up the homer, then quickly settled into a groove.
The 24-year-old right-hander struck out nine before shortstop Jason Bartlett booted Alex Cora's ground ball for an error, leading off a tense eighth.
Boston went on to load the bases when Kevin Youkilis drew a two-out walk. Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, became the fifth Tampa Bay pitcher of the inning — quite a spot for someone who started the year in Class A.
Drew, who capped the Game 5 rally with a ninth-inning single, struck out with a check-swing on a 97 mph fastball to end the threat. Price worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth and when pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie grounded out, the celebration began.