ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays were on the brink again, backs against the wall.
Well, the wall finally won.
So did the Boston Red Sox, coming back to win 3-1 Tuesday at the Trop and end this ALDS in four games.
When they least needed it, the Rays cracked, just enough. That’s how it works.
They remain one of the best stories in sports. Only the story keeps ending here.
In the blink of an eye it took for Joel Peralta’s very first pitch to bounce past catcher and Game 3 hero Jose Lobaton … or the years it took that Shane Victorino broken-bat slow roller to reach Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar, time for Victorino to reach base and the winning run to score ... it was done.
For the third time in four years, the Rays finished their season here while someone chugged champagne in the visiting clubhouse.
There can’t be anything good about that.
It was the Rangers in the ALDS in 2010 and 2011, and Tuesday it was the Sox.
Ninety-four wins or no, the Rays weren’t quite good enough, again.
“What’s it going to take?” Ben Zobrist said. “That’s a good question.”
Getting a little old, isn’t it?
The Red Sox were better. They outpitched and outhit the Rays during the regular season and they did it again in these four games. Not enough Rays hitting in the postseason. Stop us if you’ve heard this before.
A failure? The Rays have come too far, far from those 100-loss seasons, where they’re never going back.
But is this all there is?
There’s no getting around four postseason appearances or five 90-win seasons. But the Rays are getting further away from that 2008 World Series.
They’ll never be a runaway train. That’s not in their DNA, or payroll.
OK, let’s get some perspective here.
The Red Sox once went 49 years while making only one World Series. They once went 86 years without winning one.
And what would you rather have, the Rays or that prison-riot-in-waiting over at the Bucs?
But it’s a double edge right now, until this franchise can push a little further.
“People are actually expecting us to win, and that’s great,” Rays owner Stu Sternberg said before Game 4. “But it’s not necessarily the best thing for our organization, because it’s so easy to disappoint.”
There was early drama in Game 4, Rays manager Joe Maddon yanking Jeremy Hellickson only three outs and six batters in, when he determined that Hellickson was personally trying to cancel everyone’s Boston hotel reservations. I don’t know why the guy was the Game 4 starter in the first place.
Hellie turned completely to jelly, bases loaded, no outs, only the Rays escaped after James Loney turned a line drive into a remarkable double play. There was a sixth-inning RBI single by August addition David DeJesus.
Would it be enough?
Because Rays hitting is hardly ever enough in the postseason, a cold, hard fact.
Because of that Boston seventh, from that Peralta wild pitch on …
“It just happened so suddenly,” Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said.
Another ALDS loss.
“It’s hard enough to just get to the playoffs,” Zobrist said. “It comes down to execution, and we haven’t done enough of it.”
Is this all there is? Is this all there will ever be?
Yes, there was the tiebreaker win at Texas. There was the wild-card win in Cleveland.
For six years, the Rays model has been the pride of baseball. They’ve beaten the odds, broken the rules and made some new ones of their own.
It has been about the shoestring, about pitching and defense and finding that extra bat. They did it again in 2013. Loney. Escobar. The Rays even stepped outside their comfort zone, trading a great arm, James Shields, for a young bat. They got Wil Myers. There was a lot of good stuff in 2013.
There’s a big test coming. Sooner or later, you know the Rays will trade David Price and his arm and his tweets in the name of their business model and that long line of pitching that never seems to end.
Can the Rays keep it going?
And how far will it ever take them in the postseason?
Here’s Maddon, Monday night, before Game 3:
“If people are getting stale, if it does appear to be stale, I really feel badly for them, because I think this is an impressive group that you should support and really look forward to on an annual basis, to see this organization going from a perennial 100-game loser, or something close to that, to the point where we’re winning 90 games on an annual basis.”
Still, getting greedy one of these seasons wouldn’t hurt.
What’s it going to take?