Series: ALCS, Game 2
Time: 8:07 p.m. EST
Josh Beckett vs. Scott Kazmir sounds like a Game 1 matchup, but this hasn't been the best of seasons for either pitcher, both of whom were limited to 27 starts by injuries. Last year, Beckett went 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in the postseason and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. This year, he started the season with a brief stint on the disabled list due to a bad back, missed a late-April start due to a stiff neck, and landed back on the DL in late August with a strained pitching elbow. More recently, he lost his opportunity to start Game 1 of the ALDS when he strained an oblique while throwing a routine bullpen session during the final days of the regular season. Despite all that, Beckett largely maintained his peripherals from a year ago during the regular season, but saw his ERA swell by three-fourths of a run due to an up-tick in his home run rate and his opponents' batting average on balls in play. Those two stats correspond with a sharp increase in his line-drive percentage to indicate that while Beckett may have been just as effective in the strike zone this year, when hitters did make contact with his pitches, they were hitting them harder than they had in 2007.
The good news for the Red Sox going into tonight's game is that those issues were largely confined to Fenway Park. Beckett has always struggled at Fenway (career 4.79 ERA), but this year his home ERA swelled to 5.65. Wearing his road grays, as he will be tonight, Beckett posted a 2.85 ERA while allowing just eight home runs in 15 starts. In two starts at Tropicana Field this year, Beckett's ERA was just 1.20 as he struck out 20 Rays in 15 innings against just two walks and seven hits. That's not quite enough to completely ignore his weak, five-inning performance in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels at Fenway, but it's close.
Like Beckett, Kazmir started the season on the DL and suffered a strain in his pitching elbow. Unlike Beckett, Kazmir got all of that out of the way in April and didn't miss a turn the rest of the way. After a warmup start on May 4 in Boston (4 IP, 4 R, 3 BB, 5 K), Kazmir peeled off six straight wins, posting a 0.88 ERA along the way, but since then, he's been decidedly ordinary. Over his final 20 starts of the season, Kazmir went 6-7 with a 4.36 ERA, completed the seventh inning only once, and never pitched into the eighth. To that he added an alarming walk rate of 4.78 walks per nine innings and an even more disconcerting home run rate of 1.8 HR/9, which combined to significantly undermine his stellar strikeout rate of 10.23 K/9. Only an abnormally low BABIP (.267) kept him from a dreadful season, for which he can thank his team's vastly improved defense. Kazmir gave up four home runs in two of his last three starts of the regular season, one of which came at home against the Red Sox. In that game, David Ortiz, Jason Bay, Jason Varitek, and Mike Lowell all homered off Kazmir as he coughed up nine runs on six hits (those four homers, a double, and a single), four walks, and a hit batsman while striking out just two. In between his May 4 warmup start and that stinker, Kazmir faced the Boston two other times, the better of which saw him limit the Sox to two runs over six innings on three walks and five hits (one a Lowell homer) at Fenway.
Also like Beckett, Kazmir is pitching in his preferred environment tonight. Though most of his walks have come at home, by keeping the ball in the park (just nine home runs allowed in 14 starts at the Trop), and letting his defense work its magic, he has been able to survive those bases on balls, going 8-2 with a 2.90 ERA. In his Game 2 ALDS start against the White Sox, Kazmir walked two and hit a third, but didn't allow a home run and managed to pitch into the sixth having only allowed two runs. Still, he was neither dominant (eight hits and just four strikeouts), nor terribly efficient (98 pitches in 5 1/3 innings).
With the series shifting to Fenway after tonight and Jon Lester looming to pitch Game 3, the Rays are facing a must-win tonight. That means Kazmir could get a quick hook if Beckett looks sharp and he doesn't. Fifth starter Edwin Jackson was added to the roster for the ALCS at the expense of four-corner sub and ex-Red Sox Eric Hinske. He'll be available for a long-relief stint, but I'd expect that the real emergency replacement for Kazmir would be rookie left-hander David Price, who got his feet wet by getting Jacoby Ellsbury to line out on three pitches Friday night. Other than Ellsbury, the Sox haven't seen Price, who posted a 1.93 ERA in 14 September innings and made his major league debut with 5 1/3 solid innings of relief work at Yankee Stadium on September 14. The top pick in the 2007 draft, Price throws in the mid 90s with movement and mixes in two above-average breaking pitches, the better of which is a sharp slider. If Kazmir is struggling, Price could well pitch the Rays back into the game if manager Joe Maddon acts quickly enough.