ST. PETERSBURG -- Akinori Iwamura stabbed Jed Lowrie's bad-hop grounder, had a moment of indecision about whether to flip the ball to shortstop Jason Bartlett, then he headed to second base. Once his foot touched down on the bag for the forceout, the Rays were headed to the World Series.
Led by American League Championship Series MVP Matt Garza, the Rays defeated the Red Sox, 3-1, Sunday night in Game 7 at Tropicana Field to advance to the World Series. The Rays will meet the Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night here.
A raucous celebration on and off the field followed that saw Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg presented the William Harridge trophy for winning the American League pennant. Iwamura moved across the top of the Rays' dugout, slapping palms with fans, and most of the crowd of 40,473 remained in the building, still standing and cheering for their team.
"I knew we were going to be good, but never in a million years would I ever have expected this," Rays lefty Scott Kazmir said. "I don't think anyone did, until we got halfway done with the season. After that, we knew, we knew we had something."
The Rays captured their first AL pennant to advance to the World Series in the franchise's first postseason appearance. The Rays are the 11th expansion team in history (18th time) to participate in the Fall Classic. And combined with the Marlins, Florida's Major League teams are now 8-0 in postseason series.
But few believed the Rays could reach the pinnacle after losing Game 5, when they held a 7-0 lead after six innings, only to lose, 8-7, at Boston. Boston then took Game 6 on Saturday night at Tropicana Field to force the deciding game.
"This team, when something has happened already, we're really good at putting it behind us," Carl Crawford said. "That's what we did, put it behind us and went out there and played our game and kept on playing hard."
Garza, who also won Game 3 of the ALCS, allowed just two hits and one run in seven-plus innings, while striking out nine.
Last place to the Fall Classic
The Rays are the sixth team to go from last place to the World Series in consecutive seasons.
Facing Phillies starting Wed.
Lost to Red Sox, 4-0
Lost to Yankees, 4-0
Lost to Blue Jays, 4-2
Beat Braves, 4-3
Lost to Twins, 4-3
"I told myself from the beginning that I'm going to leave it all out there today, no matter what," Garza said. "I've gotta go hard, give my team the best chance to win, and that was for me to give everything I had.
"I didn't know if today was my last start of the year or what, so I just went out there and emptied my tank and said, 'Hey, here goes, we'll see what happens.'"
Garza's only blemish came in the first inning, when Dustin Pedroia homered with one out to put the Red Sox up, 1-0. Garza then added six zeroes to his line before leaving the game after Bartlett booted Alex Cora's routine ground ball to start the eighth.
Surviving the eighth turned out to be the key moment of the game for the Rays. Dan Wheeler took over for Garza and allowed a single to Coco Crisp before Pedroia flied out to left for the first out. J.P. Howell then entered the game and got David Ortiz to hit into a fielder's choice for the second out.
Rays manager Joe Maddon then called for Chad Bradford to pitch to Kevin Youkilis, who drew a walk to load the bases. David Price became the fifth and final Rays pitcher of the inning, when the 23-year-old rookie left-hander was brought in to pitch to J.D. Drew. He struck out Drew, who attempted a checked swing on a fastball near the outside corner, to end the threat.
In the ninth, Price issued a walk to Jason Bay, then struck out Mark Kotsay and Jason Varitek, before getting Lowrie to ground into the forceout to end the game.
"I felt really good about David tonight," Maddon said. "David, when you talk about him prior to the game, this young man is composed beyond his years, he really is, and I think you've all had a chance to understand that if you've even had one conversation with him.
Brilliant bounce-back effort
Among the 33 teams to start a series 3-1 but lose Games 5 and 6, only five times has that team rallied to win Game 7
After Gm 4
"So it was just important to get through that murderer's row that they have there, and then eventually turn it over to him. That was my thought. And again, it was just about throwing strikes, and he's been a strike-thrower his whole life."
Jon Lester started for the Red Sox and was perfect through three innings before Iwamura singled to lead off the fourth. After Carlos Pena hit into a fielder's choice for the second out of the inning, Evan Longoria doubled down the right-field line and Pena scored from first to tie the score at 1.
Willie Aybar led off the Rays' fifth with a double to left, and Dioner Navarro followed with an infield single to bring up Rocco Baldelli. Baldelli had gone 0-for-6 with five strikeouts in his career against Lester, but he came through with a single to left that scored Aybar and put the Rays up, 2-1.
For Baldelli, the moment was particularly poignant given the fact he didn't know if he would ever play baseball again back in the spring. It was then that he announced that he had been diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder, a malady that left his muscles in a constant state of fatigue.
"It's so unbelievable. I don't know. I don't think I can even take the time to think about it now," Baldelli said. "I've never had this much fun playing baseball before. This is what I came back for. I wanted to prove to myself that I could play, but I wanted to help this team win a World Series."
The Red Sox tried to answer in the sixth when Pedroia walked with one out. But Garza rose to the occasion by striking out Ortiz, and Navarro threw out Pedroia attempting to steal to complete the double play.
Aybar then homered off Lester to lead off the seventh to push the Rays' lead to 3-1, and that lead would hold.
Despite losing two straight to the defending World Series champions, the Rays maintained their composure and came away with a win in the biggest game in franchise history.
"This team learned a lot from [the Game 5 loss] and it takes adversity to see what you're made of," Cliff Floyd said. "Throughout this season, every time we had faced some kind of obstacle and things got tough, we got better. I liked today better than I liked [Saturday]. That wasn't us.
"Today was us when we came in. It was how we played all season. It was how we prepared ourselves. BP was the same, nobody stretched, we messed around, that's what we did all season. There's really nothing else to say except nobody would have thought this in a million years."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.