Rays must recover, or Game 7 could be their worst nightmare

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- You never know how sporting events will go, but Sunday night's deciding game of the ALCS figures to be more intriguing than, say, a six-year-old rerun of "The Steve Harvey Show.''

In one dugout you have the Red Sox, one of the oldest and most storied teams in baseball, the defending world champions, the club that somehow turns every postseason appearance into another cuticle-devouring, ulcer-challenging, bedtime-destroying chapter of New England legend. Although the Red Sox trailed this series 3-1 just a few days ago and in Game 5 were seven runs behind with seven outs to go, they are now determined to complete yet another staggering comeback.

In the other dugout you have the Rays, a team so young its players haven't yet entered their difficult teen years, a club that finished in last place in nine of its previous 10 seasons (including last year with 96 losses), a franchise that barely had a fan base to tease, thrill or disappoint until last month but nonetheless has evoked comparisons to the 1969 Mets. Although the Rays once led this series 3-1 and edged so close to clinching the pennant that they could practically read the warning to pregnant women on the champagne bottle labels, they are now determined to secure their first World Series appearance.

And after a week of B.J. Upton home runs and epic Red Sox rallies, the series will come down to Game 7, in which Boston starter Jon Lester will face Tampa Bay's Matt Garza. Let's just hope no untimely power outages interrupt the broadcast.

"When you're growing up, that's what you always dream about -- Game 7, Game 7! That was the best. And guess what, we get to play in a Game 7 now,'' Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said after his team's 4-2 loss in Game 6. "All of us realize that. We're excited about it. Don't get me wrong. We wish we didn't get to this point. We wish we didn't actually get here. But we are. So the way we're looking it at is, it's Game 7. When we were kids playing in the backyards, that was the first words out of our mouths: 'Game 7!' And tomorrow it will be Game 7. It should be a lot of fun. It should be intense, and to be part of it will be awesome.''

Said Boston left fielder Jason Bay: "Game 7, bottom of the ninth, that's the whole thing you think about. I just didn't think it could actually happen.''

Think you're a little anxious for this game to begin? Bay said he'll show up to Tropicana Field around 3 p.m. because "I can either sit around the hotel or sit around here -- and here there's food.'' Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said he'll show up between 1 and 2 to undergo treatment for his two sore knees, lower back, left leg and neck (although those aches probably didn't hurt quite so much after he hit his Game 6 go-ahead home run). And Boston manager Terry Francona said he'll arrive at the dome around noon, some eight hours before the scheduled first pitch, to go over game plans and matchups.

Tampa Bay reliever J.P. Howell, meanwhile, said he'll show up around 2:30 for even more important pregame preparation: watching Sunday's NFL games with his teammates.

"The more intense, I'm telling you man, the more wild we can get -- I'm excited,'' Howell said. "I can't wait. It's been tense, it was tense here today. But you could tell just as soon as everyone came in here after the game, it was like, 'All right. We have nothing to lose now. We have nothing to hold off. It is what it is.'''

But what is it? Officially, the Red Sox and the Rays are tied 3-3. Unofficially, though, it seems as if Boston will enter Game 7 with a four-run lead. Only six previous teams have rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS to win the series, and Boston is responsible for half those rallies (1986, 2004 and 2007). With a strong performance from Lester, the Red Sox could make it 4-for-4.

Not to imply that there will be extra scrutiny on the Rays, but here's a verbatim question posed to Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon after the Game 6 loss:

"Not to avoid the 900-pound gorilla in the room, but you guys were seven outs away, 7-0 lead, and now you're facing the defending World Series champions in Game 7 on the verge of possibly one of the biggest collapses in postseason history. How do you get this team ready for tomorrow night and not think about Game 5?''

"That was tremendous hyperbole right there,'' Maddon responded quite accurately. "That happened a couple days ago. That has nothing to do with tomorrow.''

Maybe, maybe not. But it might have had a little to do with the Rays' performance in Game 6.

Starter James Shields pitched behind in the count throughout the game, blew a 1-0 lead as quickly as he received it and later gave up a shocking home run to Varitek immediately after his teammates had tied the game. "That's a situation where you have to go out there and shut them down right away,'' Shields acknowledged.

(The loss dropped Shields to 0-2 in the series, which begs the question: How does a pitcher for the Rays earn the nickname "Big Game"? Like, how many big games could he possibly have pitched before this past month? But we digress …)

Shortstop Jason Bartlett hit a game-tying homer in the fifth, but he also threw away what should have been a routine inning-ending grounder that led to an important insurance run for the Red Sox. And although the Rays' sluggish offense was due to some effective Boston pitching from Josh Beckett and the bullpen, they also had some poor at-bats, particularly in the eighth inning after putting their leadoff man aboard. Reliever Grant Balfour also continues to struggle with his control.

Are the Rays feeling the pressure?

"What people want is to see our inexperience, but we battled adversity pretty much the whole year, and nothing is going to get in our way,'' designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "Either we're supposed to win this game tomorrow, or we're supposed to lose it. This team has gone through as much as you can go through in terms of highs and lows, but we're here for a reason. And that's that we're a good team.

"Nobody is panicking. Nobody is worried. Awe? Shock? Yeah, and rightfully so. But in terms of our team, we have a young team but we have a good team, and if we play our game we're going to win. It's just unfortunate that team over there is a pretty good team, too. It's going to be a good battle.''

Lester has pitched extremely well during the past month, except for his Game 3 start when the Rays ripped him for five runs -- and two home runs -- in less than six innings. Garza was 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA in the regular season but allowed just one run in six innings against Lester to win Game 3.

One of the two may pitch his way into postseason history. And if neither does, someone else will take their place, either with a big performance on the mound or at the plate. This is Game 7, when legends are written.

"Guys hit big home runs and make big plays in Game 7 of the World Series and championship series,'' rookie third baseman Evan Longoria said. "I'm sure there will be a big hero tomorrow, and I hope he's on our team.

"I guess Joe Carter sticks out in my mind. That was Game 7, right?''

No, actually. That was Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, when Carter's home run won the title for the Blue Jays.

"Whatever,'' he said with a smile while reporters laughed. Game 6? Game 7? The point is, Longoria said, "There have been heroes in these type of games, and somebody will step up.''

Let's just hope it's someone other than Steve Harvey.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.