ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Go on, admit it. You didn't think there was any way the Red Sox would lose Game 7, did you? After they rallied from a seven-run deficit with seven outs left to win Game 5, after they won Game 6, after the way they came back in the 2004 and 2007 ALCS, you thought the Sox would win yet again. Even when they trailed by two runs in the final innings Sunday night, you felt confident that they would come back, win the game and reach the World Series again.
Don't be ashamed. You weren't alone.
"I don't think anyone expected us to lose," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "We put ourselves in position to win, and we fell a little short."
After the 3-1 defeat in Game 7, shortstop Alex Cora walked through the Sox clubhouse wearing a T-shirt from the season's opening series in Japan. ("That seems like years ago," pitching coach John Farrell said of the Tokyo opener.) Catcher Jason Varitek sat surrounded by reporters, his voice breaking, unsure whether he had played his final game as a Red Sox. And while his teammates showered and dressed, third baseman Kevin Youkilis sat locked in deep concentration in front of his locker, still wearing his full uniform as if unwilling to take it off for the winter.
"It hurts not going on to the World Series," Youkilis eventually said. "I didn't plan on that being my last at-bat and my last inning of ball. But it is, and we just have to move on and get ready for 2009."
Just what will the Sox do this offseason? Varitek is a free agent. Although he's been the soul of the team, he hit just .220 this season, had only one hit in this series (albeit the go-ahead home run in Game 6) and is clearly not the player he once was. Curt Schilling could be a free agent, a retiree or a secretary of defense for John McCain. The Red Sox need to decide what to do with those two players and must make their usual offseason moves to strengthen the team.
"We'll go into that tomorrow," general manager Theo Epstein said. "I don't think it would be appropriate to go into that now. This is a night to be proud of what we accomplished and mourn just falling short."
The Red Sox are in good position overall, especially if they can come back at full health in the spring. But wouldn't you know it? Just when it appeared that Boston had finally established itself as the dominant team in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, there's a new team in the AL East mix. The American League champion Tampa Bay Rays -- and it'll take a while to get used to that term, kind of the way "world champion Red Sox" did in 2004 -- are good, young and, from the look of things, only going to get better.
"We'll go into the offseason and get some help, which you need because everybody gets stronger," designated hitter David Ortiz said. "And now we have a new team in the East that has a lot of talented players. They played amazing baseball this year."
Ortiz admitted his knee and wrists bothered him this postseason -- he was 0-for-3 with a walk in Game 7 and hit just .154 in the series -- and he wasn't the only Boston player aching. But despite all their injuries, the Sox came close to reaching the World Series. They staged their memorable Game 5 comeback and held a 1-0 lead in Game 7 into the fourth inning before the Rays finally scratched across a run against Boston starter Jon Lester. Tampa took the lead in the fifth and added an insurance run in the seventh, and that was enough because the Sox could not create the necessary big hits against Matt Garza and the Rays' pen.
Boston stranded eight baserunners Sunday to refuel the question of whether the Red Sox would have won the series had Manny Ramirez still been in the lineup. Or would they have even gotten this far with him in the clubhouse? Did Jason Bay hit well enough this postseason to compensate? We'll never know the answer, but Ortiz is convinced the Sox missed his old teammate.
"Of course," he said. "You know that Manny is the type of guy who knows how to get it done. Manny is one of the best hitters in the game. Who wouldn't miss Manny? You know what I mean? I'm not going to lie to you."
Boston's season ended disappointingly, but it is a testament to how far the Red Sox have come in recent years that reaching the ALCS is not considered good enough by some fans, that many feel the team now owns the famed postseason mystique and aura once attributed to the Yankees.
"There are probably some fans who are angry tonight and feel we had a horrible year. They have a right to feel that way, but I happen to disagree with them," Epstein said. "Any time you lose your last game in any sport, but particularly in baseball where it's such a daily grind to get to this point, it hurts. And this feeling stays with you forever. It's cruel the way it works. You remember the Game 7 losses more than the Game 7 victories. It's what keeps the engines burning. And that's what will keep this organization burning for a long time to come."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.