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10/20/08 3:22 AM EST

Sox handle crushing loss with class

After rallying to tie ALCS, Boston comes up short in Game 7

ST. PETERSBURG -- It was a night the Red Sox hoped would end with the familiar combination of champagne, goggles and euphoria. Instead, it concluded with a visitors' clubhouse full of hushed tones.

This time around, the Red Sox came up short in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, falling, 3-1, to the Rays on Sunday.

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Kevin Youkilis, Boston's leading run producer all year long, didn't want to take his uniform off. He sat at his locker and just stared at it for about 20 minutes.

Veteran reliever Mike Timlin, who is likely to retire, quietly went around to various players and shook their hands, congratulating them on their effort.

Jason Varitek, the team captain, had tears in his eyes when a member of the media asked if he had contemplated that this could be the end of his time with the Red Sox, the team he's been with since 1997. Varitek is eligible for free agency.

The ending was so sudden, and even a bit unforeseen.

"A lot of the young guys, we don't know this feeling," said Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, who took the loss after allowing three runs over seven innings. "We know winning. I think that will be something we'll be thinking about in this offseason."

There will be no championship parades in Boston this autumn.

This, even though the script was setting up just like it had in recent Octobers. Down, 3-0, in the 2004 ALCS, the Red Sox made history by coming back to beat the Yankees. Last year, they bounced back from 3-1 against the Indians and wound up winning the World Series for the second time in four seasons.

So after the Red Sox -- down, 3-1, in the ALCS yet again -- came back from 7-0 down with seven outs to go to win Game 5, how could they not think they were in for a little more magic? Right on cue, they won Game 6 and put the ball in the hands of their most consistent pitcher -- Lester -- for Game 7.

But the Red Sox just couldn't get the big hit they needed. This time, the Rays will go to the World Series.

"I feel like there's no losers in here tonight," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "We got beat by a team that's playing great. We congratulate them. I still feel like this was a championship effort this year. [It's] something for the organization to be proud of. It's baseball. You don't win all the time. The effort was incredible. Every guy here left it all on the field."

Francona in elimination games
The Red Sox are 9-2 in elimination games under manager Terry Francona.
2005ALDSWhite Sox3Lost

And that's why it might take a few days for the Red Sox to digest the defeat.

"It definitely hurts," said Youkilis. "We battled so hard and had a great year of battling through a lot of adversity and a lot of things. We fell short. I feel like I should have done a little bit more, I think tonight and other parts of the series. I put a lot on my shoulders. I think I didn't carry this team enough tonight when there were some opportunities I could have."

Youkilis had been one of the fortunate ones. He came up as a rookie in 2004 and hadn't witnessed much heartbreak. Perhaps that's why it was so hard for him to take the uniform off.

"It hurts that we're not going to the World Series," Youkilis said. "I wasn't planning on that being my last at-bat, my last inning of ball, but it is. You just have to move on and get ready for 2009."

Despite the disappointment of the defeat, the Red Sox handled the loss with class. There was no finger-pointing or excuses.

"You get used to a certain level, playing in this Red Sox uniform," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "I don't think anybody else expected us to lose. It's just, these are the circumstances and it happened. We gave ourselves a chance to win. We fell just a little bit short. Year after year, we're going to put ourselves in a position to win championships. You can't ask for anything else."

The Red Sox expect to have many more Octobers in the coming years.

"Playing in this Red Sox uniform, you become accustomed to being in playoff situations," Papelbon said. "You put yourselves in a chance to win championship games. It's all you can really ask for."

Even though the miracle win in Game 5 didn't lead to another World Series berth, the Red Sox still were proud to take the Rays to the limit.

"To fall a little bit short at the end hurts, no doubt about it," said Epstein. "It would hurt more if we hadn't let it all hang out along the way, which these guys did. We have nothing to be ashamed of at all."

This time, the Red Sox just couldn't complete the entire comeback.

"It wasn't our year," said slugger David Ortiz. "We had a lot of injuries, a lot of different things this year. It's been a tough year. We tried to fight back. [Losing Game 7], it's not what you expect. But they played better than we did."

But the Red Sox knew that they never fell short on effort.

"To say we were going to get to Game 7 of the ALCS with all the injuries we had and what we've been though as a team, it's a pretty good accomplishment," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "We still felt like we had a championship-caliber team. We just ran into a team that played a little bit better than us."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.