Rays win a time-consuming, tension-filled affair to even series

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Red Sox and Rays played so long Saturday night that Dick Vitale grew a full head of hair in his box seat. Boston manager Terry Francona was so short on relievers that he was ready to send out an all points bulletin for Dick Drago and Tom Burgmeier.

And if Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon had warmed up golden child David Price one more time without actually using him, principal owner Stuart Sternberg might have charged the bullpen and personally intervened.

The Red Sox and Rays actually played two games Saturday night. Through the first five innings, the teams combined for an American League Championship Series record-tying seven homers and made Tropicana Field look like Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out.

For the final six innings, Game 2 of the ALCS was a montage of big confrontations, managerial chess and valiant relief pitching. On one hand, you had the Red Sox looking to take a 2-0 lead back to Boston and effectively suck the drama out of the series. On the other, you had the upstart Rays looking for that climactic hit to send everyone home in time for church.

"It seemed like an eternity," Tampa Bay center fielder B.J. Upton said. "Just back and forth. They'd score one. We'd score three. They'd score two. Then both teams just stopped scoring."

The game had to end eventually, and the big moment came at 1:35 a.m. ET, when Upton's sacrifice fly to right field scored pinch runner Fernando Perez with the winning run. In the latest "pinch us" moment from a feel-good season, the Rays pulled even in the ALCS with a 9-8, 11-inning victory before a capacity crowd of true believers at the Trop.

Cowbell karma lives. And just think: It took only five hours and 27 minutes to become official.

"At some point, I played today. I just forget what time it was," said Cliff Floyd, who began the game as Tampa Bay's designated hitter and contributed a home run to the cause. "But you know what? Nobody said it was going to be easy. The best thing you can do when you play five or six hours is get a win. We got that, and now we'll keep it moving."

With his bullpen pretty much spent, Boston manager Terry Francona chose veteran Mike Timlin instead of Paul Byrd in the 11th inning, and the Rays took advantage of Timlin's rust and inability to find the strike zone. After Boston's veteran righty walked the bases loaded, Upton lofted an 0-2 slider to shallow right field.

J.D. Drew, who had been plunked on his throwing shoulder by a 95 mph Grant Balfour fastball in the series opener, uncorked a weak throw up the third-base line, and Perez scored easily to send the Rays into a celebratory frenzy.

"As soon as I drew my arm back to throw and follow through, I got that good charley horse from where I got drilled in the shoulder last night," Drew said. "I didn't have the best grip on the ball, so it kind of sailed a little bit to the right. I knew I had to be perfect. And when I released it, I knew it wasn't."

Perez, the only active player in the big leagues with a Columbia University pedigree, stole a quick glance at third-base coach Tom Foley before deciding to go for it.

"I was watching to see if he'd be mad at me if I went," Perez said. "I talked to him afterward, and he was happy with the decision."

So were Perez's teammates. Deep down, the Rays knew that their shared dream of a World Series trip hung by a thin thread Saturday night. The series shifts to Fenway Park for three games starting Monday, and Tampa Bay will face Boston's hottest pitcher, Jon Lester, in Game 3. The Rays won only two of nine regular-season games at Fenway, so they have some work to do even though the series is tied at one game apiece.

"I was definitely on the edge of my seat," Balfour said. "You can treat it like it's the last game of the year. It's not, but you felt like that. It's intense, it's nail-biting, and I'm glad we came away with the win."

It was a grind nevertheless. The 37 players used by the two teams tied an ALCS record, and a lot changed over the course of 327 minutes. Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, who have had their problems in the batter's box of late, combined for six hits, three home runs and a whopping 17 total bases.

And very real concerns exist about the state of Boston's Josh Beckett and Tampa's Scott Kazmir, the nominal aces for their two clubs, after mutually shaky outings in Game 2.

What's wrong with Beckett? That has to be the pressing question on the minds of Red Sox loyalists as the series shifts to Boston.

Beckett's health has been a concern since he suffered a strained oblique muscle near the end of the regular season. The Boston Globe reported Saturday that Beckett had received a pain-killing injection before his division series start against the Angels, and the Red Sox had hoped an encouraging bullpen session this week would herald a return to form by baseball's pre-eminent postseason starter.

So much for expectations. Beckett gave up eight earned runs in 4 1/3 innings and failed to hold leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 6-5 before departing. He threw a few decent curveballs, but his fastball clearly lacked its usual zip and late life. And when he fell behind in the count and had to throw the ball down the middle, ducking was a prerequisite.

Beckett obliged reporters and answered questions at his locker after the game, but he was cryptic and tight-lipped about his performance and his health status. Although the oblique injury appears to have transformed him from John Smoltz version 2.0 to Mr. Rockedtober, he's not about to use health problems as an excuse. And he still sounds like a guy who plans to pitch when his turn in the rotation comes around again in Game 6.

"I'm fine," Beckett said at least four times during a two-minute interview. "It's just frustrating when your team scores eight runs and you can't win the [bleeping] game."

Kazmir has some issues of his own. He's been plagued by homer-itis since mid-September, and at times he seems tentative to throw his slider. For whatever reason, he's become a complete adventure in the strike-throwing department in the first inning. Kazmir threw 37 first-inning pitches in the AL Division Series against Chicago and surpassed that total by one against Boston.

At one point, Kazmir was so exasperated that he punched his glove in disgust in response to a high changeup to Jed Lowrie. When he walked off the mound at the end of the first inning, it was with pursed lips and his head hanging -- bad body language straight out of the Jeff Weaver baseball etiquette handbook.

Who could have envisioned that five hours later, Kazmir would be jumping around the infield like a maniac with the rest of the Rays?

"We have a lot of heart in this clubhouse when we come to the park," Floyd said. "Guys just know when to strap it on. Seven o'clock. Eight o'clock. It don't matter. We're just ready to play."

The Rays pulled off an impressive feat Saturday by finishing a marathon with a sprint. And make no mistake about it: They're still alive and kicking.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.