To reach the point where the Rays found themselves Tuesday night was a huge achievement in itself, winning elimination games at Toronto, Texas and Cleveland before the Red Sox, their AL East rival, finally put an end to the magic.
"When you're on a ride like this, you only envision getting the prize at the end," Alex Cobb said. "When it doesn't happen, it kind of feels like the rug's pulled out from under you and reality sets in and it's tough to take right now. The pain will go away a little bit during the offseason, but you definitely have to use it for motivation coming back next year. Remembering this feeling and not letting it happen."
Maddon complimented the Red Sox for their play.
"They were really good," Maddon said. "They didn't make any mistakes. You could see their grit. I talked about from Spring Training on, I think they've really promoted the character within that group, and they're just gamers, they've got a bunch of gamers over there. And that's what really I felt from the other side. On the other side, I think our guys were equally tough. We have had a hard time hitting their pitching staff."
Tampa Bay held Boston scoreless through six innings before the dam broke in the seventh, when the Red Sox scored one run on a wild pitch by Joel Peralta that tied the game and then scored the go-ahead run when Shane Victorino beat out an infield hit and Jacoby Ellsbury crossed home to put the Red Sox on top.
"Really tough," said Peralta of the hurt stemming from the loss. "Come in in that situation and try and do the job, and I couldn't. It just hurt -- a lot."
Maddon made decisions from the beginning that reflected the fact that a loss meant the Rays' season would be over. The first of those came in the second inning, when he lifted his starter, Jeremy Hellickson.
Hellickson retired the Red Sox in order in the first before delivering eight straight balls to start the second. With two runners aboard, Hellickson finally threw a strike to the third batter of the inning, Daniel Nava, who then singled on the next pitch to load the bases. Maddon had seen enough and called for veteran right-hander Jamey Wright to take over.
Wright struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia looking. Stephen Drew then lined out to first baseman James Loney, who first looked to tag out Nava returning to the bag before thinking otherwise and flipping a throw to second. Shortstop Yunel Escobar caught the ball and stepped on the bag before Mike Napoli could get back, thereby completing the unlikely inning-ending double play.
Maddon's short leash continued with Wright, who walked Will Middlebrooks to start the third and got lifted in favor of Matt Moore. And, once again, the pixie dust fell in Maddon's favor. Ellsbury hit into a 4-3-6 double play.
Moore struck out Victorino swinging at a slider to end the inning.
After Moore completed his two scoreless frames, Alex Torres added two more to take the Rays through the sixth.
Meanwhile, Boston starter Jake Peavy stood against many, matching zeros with the Rays' parade of hurlers through five innings until Escobar doubled off the left-field wall to lead off the sixth. Jose Lobaton's groundout to second moved Escobar to third before David DeJesus singled him home to put the Rays up, 1-0.
Could the Rays hold serve and ride the 1-0 lead into a Game 5 in Boston? The painful answer to that question came in the seventh inning.
Jake McGee became the Rays' fifth pitcher when the hard-throwing left-hander began the seventh. After retiring pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes on a flyout to center, pinch-hitter Xander Bogaerts drew a walk. McGee struck out Middlebrooks in an eight-pitch at-bat before Ellsbury singled to right, allowing Bogaerts to advance to third.
Maddon then made his fifth pitching change when he brought in Peralta to face Victorino. That's when the veteran right-hander uncorked the wild pitch Bogaerts scored on while Ellsbury raced to third on the play, putting the Boston speedster in position to score on Victorino's infield single.
Victorino feigned a bunt on the wild pitch, allowing his bat to block the view of Lobaton, and the Rays catcher was unable to block the ball when it bounced.
"It was a curve ball," Peralta said. "I'm pretty sure Lobby couldn't see the ball bounce because he blocked his view. I would throw that pitch again in the same situation because I know he would block it."
The Red Sox added a run in the ninth on Dustin Pedroia's sacrifice fly. All told, the Rays used a postseason record nine pitchers for a nine-inning game. And Game 5 starter David Price was warming up in the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth.
"I'm assuming that the next opponent we have is going to be as tall a challenge as Tampa is," Boston manager John Farrell said. "They pitch extremely well. They play a complete game. They're athletic. They play very good defense. They're well managed, obviously.
"You never feel like you're comfortable going up against them. We've had some success against them this year, where maybe in years past it's been a little bit different. They posed a stern challenge for us, no question."
Gasping for their last breath, Evan Longoria went down swinging against Red Sox closer Koji Uehara for the final out of the Rays' season.
"From my perspective, I'm really proud of our group," Maddon said. "I just talked to them briefly about that. I don't want to be cliché, but there's nothing to hang our heads about. There really isn't."