Wednesday October 15th, 2008

Joe Maddon is essentially playing with house money right now. When his Rays left for Boston early last Sunday morning, Maddon could have realistically hoped that they might return to Tampa on Friday with two wins at Fenway Park under their belts and a 3-2 ALCS lead. Now that they've gotten those two wins already, and in such a shocking fashion -- they outscored the Sox 22-5 in Games 3 and 4 -- Maddon, like any good gambler or stock market speculator, knows that now is the time to push things, to seize hold of any possible advantage he might have in the face of a severely diminished downside risk. To that end Maddon has decided to start Game 2 starter Scott Kazmir in Thursday night's Game 5 at Fenway against Sox ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, and hold Game 1 starter James Shields for a potential Game 6 back at Tropicana Field.

On Wednesday, Maddon explained his rationale, underscoring that his staff had even before the ALCS began considered starting Kazmir in Game 5, if the proper cards fell into place. (Due to off-days on Sunday and Wednesday, Kazmir will be pitching on his regular four days' rest). "We like the fact that he's pitching with an open day following, [giving us] the ability to utilize the entire bullpen," he said in reference to Kazmir's propensity for throwing a lot of pitches early in games -- he hasn't reached the seventh inning since July -- and the resulting likelihood that Maddon will need to call on his bullpen early and often.

"We also like the idea of him pitching here, and we like the idea of Shields being able to pitch at home, if necessary," Maddon added. Kazmir had a 4.50 ERA in two starts against the Red Sox at Fenway this season, and a 14.63 ERA in two starts against them in St. Petersburg. Shields, meanwhile, yielded a combined 11 earned runs in just 4.2 innings in two Fenway starts in `08, but allowed two earned runs over 15.1 regular season innings against the Sox at home. He continued the trend in Game 1, as Boston mustered two runs and six hits in 7.1 innings, even though they ended up with their only victory of the ALCS thus far.

There are other factors at play here -- not least of which is Kazmir's history with the umpire who is scheduled to be behind home plate in Game 6, Derryl Cousins. Cousins ejected Maddon for arguing on Kazmir's behalf during a June 11 loss against the Angels that ended Kazmir's six-game win streak, and over the course of the game Kazmir became visibly upset with what he perceived to be Cousins's small and inconsistent strike zone. "That was unbelievable. I've never seen anything like that before," Kazmir said after that game. "You come into the game and some of the veteran guys are talking about an umpire that doesn't like calling anybody out on strikes. They called him 'shoe box.' You shouldn't change your zone just because of the count."

Maddon denied on Wednesday that he had based his decision to swap Kazmir and Shields' spots in the rotation based on the umpiring personnel. "That was just coincidence ... it had nothing to do with it," he said. Maddon has proven himself to be the straightest of shooters, and we should take him at his word here, even though the thought that at the least Kazmir might have tightened up with Cousins behind the plate and tried to be "too perfect," as they say, must have crossed his mind.

Whatever the case, Maddon will now counter Boston's hottest pitcher, Matsuzaka, with a starter in Kazmir who's anything but a sacrificial lamb -- he was, after all, an All-Star this year, and despite his recent struggles he has the ability to be as dominant as any pitcher in baseball -- and if that doesn't work out, he'll then have his finest clutch pitcher, "Big Game" James Shields, throwing in the place in which he feels the most comfortable against the struggling Josh Beckett. As he has done all season, it looks like Maddon has made a smart decision.

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