For the Tampa Bay Rays, that's one down, two more to go.
The Rays won in dramatic fashion Monday night with a two-out, walk-off home run into the tank by backup catcher Jose Lobaton off closer Koji Uehara to stay alive in their American League Division Series battle with the Boston Red Sox.
The 5-4 win in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 3 prevented Tampa from being swept and may have swung some momentum. Still, the Rays are down in the best-of-five set and have no margin for error against the most potent offense in Major League Baseball.
The Red Sox led the sport with 853 runs scored, 5.3 per game, thanks to a lineup that produced a .349 OBP and .446 SLG, both of which were also tops in the game.
Despite Monday night's loss, Boston is averaging an MLB-best 7.7 runs per game in the playoffs. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers have been in the same ballpark as far as OBP (.387) and SLG (.471). In case you missed that, the Red Sox have been more productive in the postseason than they were during the regular season.
The fact that Boston has done that against the pitching-rich Rays, who sent left-handers Matt Moore and David Price and righty Alex Cobb to the hill in the first three games, is all the more impressive.
But Tampa certainly took a big step in battling back by pulling a proverbial rabbit out of a hat in winning Game 3. As I noted over the weekend after the Rays went down 2-0 in the series, teams have come back from that backs-against-the-wall scenario before.
They're also not strangers to playing and winning do-or-die games, which they've now done four times in four different cities over the past eight days.
There was the 7-6 win over the Blue Jays in Toronto on the final day of the season, which forced the play-in game a day later against the Rangers, won 5-2 in Texas. Those back-to-back matchups were followed by a 4-0 victory against the Indians in Cleveland two days later. And then Monday's win over Boston in Tampa.
Longoria said of the rays having their backs against the wall, "it seems like those moments have been fueling us."— Erik Boland (@eboland11) October 8, 2013
As great as that run is, it'll have to be extended to six must-wins in five cities in 11 days if the Rays are going to advance.
The good news for Tampa is that Tuesday night's Game 4, which airs on TBS, is at home. That helps even the playing field when it comes to the two offenses, as Matthew Kory writes for Sports on Earth:
Boston posted an .819 OPS at home this season, but on the road that number drops to .773. Moving the Red Sox out of Fenway Park doesn’t turn their offense off, but it does make them slightly less potent, and considering Tampa is about the same at home as on the road, that’s a relative advantage for the Rays.
On the pitching side, the Rays had a 3.49 ERA at home but a 4.01 ERA on the road. The Red Sox had a 3.57 ERA at home but a 4.03 ERA on the road. So the two teams essentially trade off pitching staffs.
The pitching matchup—Jake Peavy against Jeremy Hellickson—is strictly in Boston's favor, though, so the Rays offense is going to have to step up to back Hellickson, who posted a 5.17 ERA on the year and hasn't pitched since Sept. 27.
Will the Rays force a Game 5 back in Boston?
In his two outings against Tampa this year (one with the Chicago White Sox), Peavy surrendered six earned runs over 12.2 frames. In his most recent start against the Rays (as a Red Sox), he walked a season-high five in six innings. That is the sort of patient approach Tampa's lineup would be wise to employ again, given that Boston's bullpen is shaky outside of Uehara and setup men Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow.
Despite his struggles this season, Hellickson has held his own against the Sox, allowing only seven runs and 18 baserunners while striking out 20 in 18.1 innings across three starts. The key for the homer-prone right-hander will be to avoid the big blow, as he's allowed nearly 1.2 homers per nine over the past three years.
But as MLB.com's Matthew Leach points out, Rays manager Joe Maddon will be at the ready with reinforcements, including young right-hander Chris Archer. He brings upper-90s heat and a wicked slider that could give Red Sox hitters fits:
Hellickson starts tomorrow. But no doubt, Archer will be ready if it gets to... the Danger Zone. (2/2)— Matthew Leach (@MatthewHLeach) October 8, 2013
Tampa probably could turn to Game 1 starter Matt Moore if needed for a couple of innings too. Even though the southpaw didn't pitch well, he would present a complementary alternative to both Hellickson and Archer against some of the Red Sox's tougher lefty hitters, like Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz. Moore held same-sided batters to a .221/.292/.326 line this season.
Moore should be available Tuesday because the Rays will most likely go with ace David Price on regular rest in Thursday's Game 5, if they can get there. That would be a battle of ace left-handers, as Boston would bring back Jon Lester.
Of course, the scene will shift back to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox are incredibly tough (53-28) and where Price was knocked around in Game 2. Still, Price's history at that park in the regular season—6-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 10 starts—combined with the fact that the Rays would own the momentum could make a theoretical Game 5 a toss-up.
And at this point, the Rays have at least put themselves in position to make the theoretical a reality with one more do-or-die win. And then another one after that.