Chris O'Meara, Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — From worst to first, and now back in the AL championship series.
Shane Victorino's infield single snapped a seventh-inning tie and journeyman Craig Breslow gave Boston a huge boost out of the bullpen, sending the Red Sox into the ALCS with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night.
Koji Uehara got the final four outs — one night after giving up a game-winning homer — and Boston rebounded to take the best-of-five playoff 3-1.
A year after finishing in last place, the AL East champion Red Sox won 97 games to match St. Louis for the best record in baseball. Now, they're moving on to the ALCS for the first time in five years.
"It's great, but we've still got one more to get where we want to be," Victorino said. "We're going to get a few days off to rest and see what happens in the other division series, and we'll go from there."
After the resilient Rays were finally eliminated, Boston will open at home Saturday against the Athletics or Tigers. Oakland hosts Detroit in a decisive Game 5 on Thursday.
Both managers mixed and matched all night at Tropicana Field in a tense game that felt more like a chess match. Desperately trying to force a fifth game, Rays skipper Joe Maddon used nine pitchers — a postseason record for a nine-inning game — and had ace David Price warming up for a potential 10th inning.
"The way it was working at the beginning there, I could see it was just not going to work and we had to do something differently," Maddon said. "We became a little bit more extemporaneous at that point."
Breslow relieved Boston starter Jake Peavy in the sixth and struck out his first four batters — all in the middle of Tampa Bay's lineup. The 33-year-old lefty from Yale has pitched for six teams in eight big league seasons, including two stints with the Red Sox.
"We had guys come to spring training, everybody bought in," Breslow said, explaining Boston's quick turnaround after going 69-93 last year. "There's accountability and 25 guys who prioritize winning baseball games beyond any kind of individual achievement or accolade."
The highest-scoring team in the majors this season, Boston scratched out three runs on six singles in a game that featured only one extra-base hit. But that was enough to knock out the wild-card Rays, who won four win-or-go-home games over the previous nine days.
"They didn't make any mistakes. You could see their grit," Maddon said. "They've got a bunch of gamers over there. ... On the other side, I think our guys were equally as tough. We have had a hard time hitting their pitching staff."
Making their fourth playoff appearance in six years, the low-budget Rays have not advanced past the division series since reaching the 2008 World Series.
Xander Bogaerts scored the tying run on Joel Peralta's wild pitch in the seventh and Victorino followed with an RBI infield single. Dustin Pedroia drove in Bogaerts with a sacrifice fly in the ninth to make it 3-1, and Uehara struck out Evan Longoria to end it.
"It feels great," outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury said. "We played a great team over there. It was a hard-fought game. It's more mentally tiring than anything. But it's a fun group of guys."
David DeJesus snapped a scoreless tie with an RBI single in the sixth for the Rays, and Boston squandered several opportunities before finally breaking through in the seventh.
Bogaerts drew a pinch-hit walk with one out and raced to third on Ellsbury's two-out single off Jake McGee. The Rays brought in their sixth pitcher, Peralta, and the game shifted suddenly on his first pitch, which skipped in the dirt past catcher Jose Lobaton — allowing the tying run to score.