By MARC LANCASTER | The Tampa Tribune
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ST. PETERSBURG – Perhaps making it interesting to the point that everyone dismissed their chances was the only way for the Rays to do it.

It worked all season, as they proved their impressive spring training record could carry over into the regular season; as they recovered from a skid heading into the All-Star break many expected to finish them; as they responded to the loss of two of their best players in August by putting together their best month of the season.

Sunday night, with everyone expecting them to fold under the weight of the memory of that horrible collapse at Fenway Park, the Rays came up bigger than ever. In taking down the defending world champion Boston Red Sox 3-1 in a gripping Game 7 at Tropicana Field, the Rays made their most emphatic argument yet that they deserve everything they are getting.

Most immediately, they’ll take a trip to the World Series. The Philadelphia Phillies come to town Wednesday night for Game 1 at Tropicana Field, and the Rays can only hope to be considered underdogs once again.

“It takes going through adversity even more to see what you’re made of,” Cliff Floyd said in the midst of the revelry Sunday night. “Through the whole season, when it got tough, we got better.”

No one was better than Matt Garza in the American League Championship Series. Written off in both Game 3 and Game 7 because he had the misfortune to be matched up against Boston’s ace Jon Lester both times, Garza outpitched him twice to earn MVP honors.

His remarkable work Sunday, limiting the Red Sox to only a first-inning home run by Dustin Pedroia and one other hit in seven-plus innings, was the driving force for the Rays in the series-clinching win. But he was hardly the only Rays pitcher to come up huge.

David Price got the final four outs, blowing a 97-mph fastball past a stunned J.D. Drew to leave the bases loaded in the eighth, then striking out two in the ninth before getting Alex Cora to ground to Akinori Iwamura for the final out.

That Game 5 loss? Forget about it. The Rays have.

“This team, when something has happened already, we’re really good at putting it behind us,” said Carl Crawford. “That’s what we did, put it behind us and went out there and played our game and kept on playing hard.”

The early omens were not good for Garza, who watched Pedroia take his sixth pitch of the game out to left field and followed that by walking David Ortiz.

But the right-hander collected himself and began a dominant run, retiring 15 of the next 16 men he faced. The only exception came with two out in the third, when Garza hit Pedroia with a 0-2 pitch, but he quickly shook that off by striking out Ortiz. And the Red Sox would collect only one more hit off him the rest of the way, a single by Jason Bay in the seventh.

“I didn’t know if today was my last start of the year or what,” said Garza, “so I just went out there and emptied my tank and said, ‘Hey, here goes, we’ll see what happens.”

It wasn’t just that Garza was finding a way to get Boston’s hitters out. He kept them completely off-balance. Over a stretch of 19 batters beginning with his strikeout of Drew to end the first inning, only one got the ball to the outfield – a fly to left by Cora to open the third. Otherwise, it was a mixture of groundouts, strikeouts and pop-ups that kept the Red Sox turning left for the visitors’ dugout throughout the middle innings.

“We’re watching him come into his own,” said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman. “It’s one of those things that you don’t really know until they perform on this stage. It’s all rhetoric beforehand and you can have theories and assumptions, but Matt Garza has been absolutely phenomenal in this series and is the reason why we’re standing here with the American League championship trophy.”

The way Garza was pitching, all he needed was a bit of offense, and his teammates eventually supplied it.

As was the case in Game 3 – though not as dramatically this time – the Rays finally got to Lester the second time through the order. The lefty was perfect through the first three innings, but Iwamura cued a single to left to open the fourth and the Rays were in business. Still, it took a bit of two-out magic to even the scoreboard as Evan Longoria’s double the other way tied the game.

The Rays added on in the fifth when Willy Aybar led off with a double off the wall and came home two batters later on a single by Rocco Baldelli. Aybar then capped the scoring by leading off the seventh with a towering homer to make it a two-run cushion.

Garza turned it over to the bullpen in the eighth, which saw five pitchers take the mound for the Rays. But Price ensured the lead would stand where it was, then did it again in the ninth. Cool as he looked on the mound, he was anything but on the inside.

“I can’t describe this feeling right here,” Price said. “It’s truly unbelievable.”

The rookie lefty’s performance will be talked about for a long time, just like everything else the Rays have done this season. But this night in particular created memories that will last like few before them.

“Just Aki picking up that groundball will be frozen in my mind for a long, long time,” said Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg. “That and Price putting down J.D. Drew in the eighth inning. Those are the two things that are etched in my brain right now.”

Remarkable as it has been, there’s more to come. Regardless of what happens in the World Series, the Rays have officially arrived.

“There was a point in time when people didn’t know who the Rays were,” said B.J. Upton. “I can guarantee you they know who the Rays are now.”