ALCS Game 5 preview

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Breaking down tonight's American League Championship Series matchup. All statistics for starting pitchers are for this postseason only.

Series: ALCS, Game 5; Rays lead 3-1

Time: 8:07 p.m. EST


Starters:Scott Kazmir (1-0, 6.52) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-0, 2.25)

If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound? What's the sound of one hand clapping? When a team scores a lot of runs, is that the result of good hitting or bad pitching? These are age-old existential questions, and the Rays look to answer one of them tonight as they come off a record-setting offensive outburst in Games 2 through 4 of the ALCS to a rematch against Matsuzaka, who shut them out for seven innings in Game 1.

The Rays have scored 31 runs over the last three games, hitting .325/.391/.667 while blasting 10 home runs and stealing five bases in as many attempts. Conversely, Red Sox pitchers have combined for a 10.33 ERA over those three games.

There were hints of this in the ALDS. The Rays' offense was effective but nowhere near this potent, hitting .297/.351/.507 with six home runs and seven steals in eight tries in their four-game victory over the White Sox. Meanwhile the Red Sox's pitchers entered the ALCS with plenty of questions. Josh Beckett, Boston's Game 2 ALCS starter, posted a 7.20 ERA in his ALDS start and Game 4 ALCS starter Tim Wakefield didn't pitch in the ALDS at all and had a 9.22 ERA in his last three postseason starts prior to Tuesday night. As for the bullpen, Paul Byrd, who gave up four runs in Game 3, didn't pitch in the ALDS either and had a 6.75 ERA over his final three starts of the regular season, and Mike Timlin, who gave up three runs in Game 4, didn't even make Boston's ALDS roster after posting a 9.39 ERA in September.

That's good hitting and bad pitching. The two together react like baking soda and vinegar, but those pitchers account for only 20 of the 31 runs scored by the Rays since Saturday. Of the remaining 11, one came off reliever Justin Masterson, which is incidental. Of the last 10, five came in Game 4 against Manny Delcarmen, who had allowed just one run in his previous 25 innings dating back to mid-August (0.36 ERA) and hadn't allowed more than three runs in a single outing all year. The other five came against Jon Lester, who pitched 14 scoreless innings in the ALDS and hadn't lost a game at Fenway Park since April 9.

Yes, Lester had an off night on Monday and was not only overdue for one but had also thrown 60 1/3 more innings on the year coming into that start than he had thrown all of last year in the minors, majors, and postseason combined. Still, beating up Josh Beckett and the rusty and crusty trio of Wakefield (41), Timlin (42) and Byrd (37 and making his first relief appearance since posting a 6.35 ERA for the Braves in two relief outings in the 2004 NLDS) is one thing. Capitalizing on an off night by one of the league's best young pitchers and dropping a five-spot on Boston's set-up ace is another entirely. That's not good hitting beating bad pitching, that's red-hot hitting steamrolling all comers.

So is tonight the night Matsuzaka finally gets his? He has had a tremendously frustrating season from an analytical perspective. He didn't pitch deep enough into games to have earned his 18 wins (he has averaged less than six innings per start, and the only pitcher in major-league history to win 18 games in a season with fewer total innings was the Pirates' Roy Face, who won 18 in relief in 1959). He puts too many men on base to have sustained his 2.90 ERA (with the exact same 1.32 WHIP last year he posted a 4.40 ERA). Yet here he is entering his third postseason start with a tidy 1-0 record (his team having won his one no-decision) and 2.25 ERA.

Matsuzaka's trick has been his performance in clutch situations. With runners in scoring position opponents hit .164/.288/.288 against him this season. With the bases loaded they went 0-for-14 (albeit with four RBIs resulting from a walk, a hit-by-pitch and two sacrifice flies). In Game 1 Matsuzaka walked the bases loaded in the first inning but picked up two outs along the way and got Cliff Floyd to ground out to strand all three runners. In the seventh he put runners on the corners with no outs but got a shallow fly, a strikeout and a groundout to strand both. He again put runners on the corners with none out in the eighth, but his bullpen came on to strand both. In Game 1 of the ALDS against the Angels, he allowed 11 baserunners in five innings but stranded eight, allowing his offense to pull off a comeback win. On the season, he stranded 8.48 runners per nine innings. By comparison Cliff Lee only needed to strand 6.37 runners per nine innings to put himself in position to be the likely AL Cy Young award winner. What happens when that immovable object meets the suddenly irresistible force of the Rays' surging offense, which has plated 31 of 52 baserunners over the last three games (6.67 men stranded per game) could help sort out one of our existential quandaries (other answers: yes, and the fingers of that one hand slapping the palm).

On the other side of the ball, with his team one win away from the World Series, maverick Joe Maddon has decided to push James Shields, who held the Sox to two runs over 7 1/3 innings in Game 1, back to Game 6 and start Kazmir, who gave up five runs in 4 2/3 innings in Game 2, in his place. Why? In part because Shields was absolutely torched in Fenway Park this year (11 runs in 4 2/3 innings over two starts), while Kazmir turned in a quality start there on Sept. 9 and has a 3.02 career ERA in Boston, but also because it gives the Rays a safety net.

Say Matsuzaka's immovable object is able to resist the Rays' forceful offense tonight. If Maddon had started Shields he could have lost a squeaker like he did in Game 1 (2-0). That would have sent the series back to Florida, where the Rays' Game 6 starter would have been Kazmir, who not only pitched poorly in his previous start in this series, which also came at Tropicana Field, but only lasted 5 1/3 innings in his ALDS start against the White Sox. In that scenario a surprising Red Sox win tonight could have snowballed into a repeat of Boston's comeback from a 3-1 deficit against Indians in last year's ALCS, with Kazmir stumbling in Game 6 and exhausting the bullpen in the process, leaving Matt Garza to face Lester in Game 7 with compromised relief support. With Kazmir starting tonight instead, the Rays' worst-case scenario would have Shields starting in his preferred home environment against an aching and likely injured Beckett in Game 6, backed by a bullpen that had tomorrow's off-day to rest.

A mistake sometimes made by managers in the postseason is saving a pitcher for tomorrow when there might not be a tomorrow, but that pertains to teams on the brink of elimination. Maddon and the Rays are on the bring of eliminating Boston,and there's no harm in them using their two-game cushion to make sure that, if they don't get the job done tonight, they are in the best possible position to get it done on Saturday.

Besides, it's not as though the Red Sox would have simply rolled over for Shields. The Sox may have been blown out in the last two games, but they pushed across three runs in the final three innings of Tuesday's Game 4 and plated eight in Game 2. Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay are hitting a combined .417 with four home runs in this series (though three of those bombs came off Kazmir). Coco Crisp is 3-for-8 with a pair of doubles and two walks. All it would take for the Red Sox to break through tonight would be a big night from one other hitter. Perhaps that seventh-inning triple in Game 4 woke up David Ortiz's bat. Perhaps Tuesday's benching and the two resulting off-days have allowed Jacoby Ellsbury to rediscover the stroke that helped him hit .333/.400/.500 with three stolen bases in the ALDS. Perhaps the fact that both of those men are lefties is another reason for the Rays to start the lefty Kazmir tonight.

It's entirely possible that the Sox will find new life by pounding Kazmir tonight. If that happens, Maddon will be in for an awful lot of second-guessing, but if the Rays' offense continues to roll and Tampa Bay eliminates Boston tonight either because, or despite of, Kazmir's performance, well that just proves Maddon's a genius, right? Or is that another existential question?