ST. PETERSBURG – They shook hands and shared hugs.
They autographed baseballs for teammates and thanked clubhouse attendants.
After 163 regular-season games and a slew of elimination games that took from Toronto to Texas to Cleveland, it was time for the Tampa Bay Rays to bid farewell to 2013.
And it happened way too early for any of their guys in a quiet clubhouse.
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The Rays lost 3-1 to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday during Game 4 of the American League Division Series, eliminating them from the playoffs and sending the Red Sox into their first League Championship Series since 2008.
“Obviously, everyone’s disappointed right now,” said second baseman Ben Zobrist. “But (manager) Joe (Maddon) came in here and told us not to hang our heads and remember we had our backs against the wall several times and we played really well to get to this point.”
The Rays could’ve bowed out during the 162nd game of the season in Toronto or during Game 163 in Texas or during the wild-card playoff game in Cleveland.
They managed to rise above all those challenges – but couldn’t get past the Red Sox, who beat them 12 out of 19 times during the regular season before knocking them out of the playoffs.
“From my perspective, I’m really proud of our group,” Maddon said. “We were kind of 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 win 92 games, that’s pretty good.”
The Rays threw everything – or more to the point, everyone – at the Red Sox on Tuesday in an effort to push the series to a decisive Game 5 in Boston. After starter Jeremy Hellickson loaded the bases with none out in the second, Maddon lifted him for reliever Jamey Wright, who struck out Jarrod Saltalamachhia and got Stephen Drew to line into a double play, much to the delight of the 32,807 in attendance.
A conga line of relievers – Wright was followed by Matt Moore and Alex Torres – blanked the Red Sox through the sixth before the Rays mounted a rally of their own in the bottom half, beginning with Yunel Escobar’s double.
Escobar took third on Jose Lobaton’s groundout and scored on a single by David DeJesus, an 11-year veteran playing in his first postseason.
But the Rays’ 1-0 lead proved short-lived courtesy of a disastrous seventh inning.
With one out, Jake McGee, the Rays’ fifth pitcher, walked pinch-hitter Xander Bogaerts, who went to third on a two-out single by Jacoby Ellsbury.
So Maddon summoned Joel Peralta, whose first pitch curveball bounced away from Rays catcher Jose Lobaton and allowed Bogaerts to score.
Another crucial part of the play – Ellsbury, who was running on the pitch, sped all the way to third. So when Shane Victorino beat out a slow roller to Escobar at short, Ellsbury was able to sprint home with the game’s go-ahead run.
“I would throw the same pitch in any situation, and I believe (Lobaton) would block it,” said Peralta, who thought that Victorino’s fake bunt attempt prevented Lobaton from seeing the ball clearly.
Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow struck out four of the five batters he faced before handing the ball off to Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, who sent the last five Rays down in order.
Boston added an insurance run in the ninth after Fernando Rodney loaded the bases by walking two and hitting Victorino – hit by a pitch a record four times in the series – before Dustin Pedroia hit a sacrifice fly off of Chris Archer.
The Rays wound up using nine pitchers in the game.
“The plan was that Hellie would have gone longer than just three outs. And then after that we were going to piece it together based on their lineup,” Maddon said. “Again, we needed to score more runs against their pitching. We’ve had a hard time doing that. But I thought our bullpen was fabulous.”
It marked the third time in four seasons the Rays failed get to past the division series, and the team hasn’t won a postseason series since they beat the Red Sox to win the pennant in ’08.
Yet in the somber of the clubhouse, the personnel tried to remain positive.
“Obviously, we want to go further next year. And we’ll do the best we can this offseason to prepare for that,” Zobrist said. “It was a good year overall, but it’s definitely tough to take the loss.”