One series down two left for glory.

In what became one of the most memorable high-wire acts in Red Sox postseason history the Red Sox claimed a breathless 3-1 victory over the Rays to win the best-of-five American League Division Series 3-1 and advance to the American League Championship Series for the ninth time in franchise history and the first time since 2008.

The extraordinary drama of the postseason was underscored when Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson opened the second inning by walking the first two hitters and then allowing a single by Daniel Nava to load the bases. With the bases loaded and no outs in the second inning of a scoreless game Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon wasted no time in pulling the plug on a starter who’d been entirely ineffective down the stretch and turning the game over to his bullpen. The move paid immediate dividends as right-hander Jamey Wright punched out Jarrod Saltalamacchia looking on a dazzling curveball and then with one out Stephen Drew‘s bullet was snared with a jump from Rays first baseman James Loney who threw to second (where shortstop Yunel Escobar made a nice pick) to complete an inning-ending double play.

The decision to go to the bullpen so early meant that the game assumed a late-innings feel even in the second inning with each pitch feeling as if it was a decisive momentum swing waiting to happen. That being the case the response by Sox starter Jake Peavy to sail through a seven-pitch 1-2-3 second inning represented a critical rebuttal to Tampa Bay’s extraordinary Houdini act.

With the game thus having cleared the second with no score a pitcher’s duel was underway with both teams remaining scoreless into the sixth. Finally Tampa Bay broke through for a run and a 1-0 lead against Peavy in the sixth only to have the Sox return serve with a two-run seventh an opportunistic rally that featured a head-turning decision by Sox manager John Farrell to have Xander Bogaerts pinch-hit for Stephen Drew setting in motion a small-ball rally that consisted of a Bogaerts walk a two-out single by Jacoby Ellsbury to put runners on the corners and then a run-scoring wild pitch that tied the score and a Shane Victorino infield single to plate Ellsbury from third.

From there the Sox bullpen dominated with Breslow Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara collaborating for the final 10 outs of the game (with the Sox achieving a measure of breathing room with an insurance run in the ninth). That in turn set the stage for the Sox to turn Tropicana Field — the venue of heartbreak after Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS — into a staging ground for celebration.

The Red Sox will play the winner of Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 5 between the Tigers and Athletics for the right to advance to the World Series.