Breaking down tonight's American League Championship Series matchup. All statistics for starting pitchers are for this postseason only.
Series: ALCS, Game 6
Time: 8:07 p.m. EST
Starters:Josh Beckett (0-0, 11.57 ERA) vs. James Shields (1-1, 3.29 ERA)
Even with a 3-1 lead heading into Thursday night's Game 5, Joe Maddon knew that if the Red Sox were able to pull out a win in that game, this series could get away from his team. That's one of the many reasons he swapped Scott Kazmir and James Shields in his rotation. Not only did the switch move Kazmir's start to Fenway Park, where he'd pitched well in the past, but it moved Shields home to Tropicana Field, where he's 20-8 with a 3.23 ERA in his career. Shields, who held the Red Sox to two runs over 7 1/3 innings at the Trop in Game 1 of this series, was intended to serve as a safety net, catching the Rays before they could suffer a fall similar to that of the Cleveland Indians, who blew a 3-1 lead against Boston in last year's ALCS.
Kazmir did his part on Thursday night, shutting out Boston for six innings. The Red Sox also did their part, rallying against the Rays' bullpen to pull out an 8-7 win and send the series back to Florida. Now it's Shields' turn. The Rays are certainly in a better position with Shields starting tonight than they would have been with Kazmir, who was 4-6 with a 4.10 ERA at the Trop during the regular season and gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings there in Game 2. They also benefit from TerryFrancona's decision to stick with Josh Beckett rather than move up Jon Lester, who would be on full rest tonight. Beckett has been awful in his two postseason starts since straining an oblique during the season's final weekend. He allowed eight runs and three homers in his 4 1/3 innings at the Trop in Game 2, and with the way the Tampa Bay offense has been clicking dating back to that game (.307/.387/.667 with 13 home runs, nine steals in as many tries, and 38 runs scored), the Rays should smell blood in the water with Beckett on the hill. That catch is that, while Maddon best prepared his team for a Game 5 loss by shuffling his rotation, nothing could have prepared the upstart Rays for blowing the seven-run lead they enjoyed while just seven outs from reaching the World Series on Thursday night.
Baseball's postseason history is littered with Walking Dead games. These games occur when a team on the verge of a series win suffers a stunning late-inning collapse and then plays as though it's still in shock in the following game. In Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, the Cubs were five outs away from making the World Series for the first time in 58 years when a fan interfered with a would-be foul out and shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a double play ball, opening the door for a shocking series-tying comeback by the Marlins, who easily dispatched the Walking Dead Cubs in Game 7. The previous year, the Giants, another Dusty Baker-managed team, had a 5-0 lead in Game 6 of the World Series and were eight outs from their first world championship since moving to San Francisco, when the Angels mounted a comeback to win the game and tie the series. The Walking Dead Giants managed just one run in the next night's Game 7 loss. The Red Sox themselves suffered a through a Walking Dead game following their stunning Game 6 collapse in the 1986 World Series. A year before that, the Cardinals were three outs from a world championship in Game 6 of the World Series, when a blown call at first base opened the door for a Royals comeback. The Walking Dead Cardinals were shutout on five hits in Game 7.
The Rays don't fit the pattern of those Game 6 collapses because Boston's comeback didn't tie this series, but there have been other instances of teams collapsing after a mid-series comeback such as Thursday's. In fact, the two most famous examples came in ALCS that the Red Sox eventually won. In Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, the Angels were one strike from reaching their first World Series when Dave Henderson homered to tie the game, which Boston would eventually win in the 11th. The Halos lost the next two games by a combined 13 runs. In 2004, the Yankees had Mariano Rivera on the mound with the lead in the ninth inning of Game 4 looking to nail down a sweep, when the Sox rallied to tie and later win that game. The next night, New York again got within six outs of the World Series only to again have the Red Sox again tie the game and win in extra innings. After those two crushing losses, the Yankees never managed a lead in either Game 6 or 7 as the Red Sox became the first baseball team ever to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series.
Still, not every team that has suffered a dramatic collapse has suffered such a fate. Flipping the script on the Sox, they were four outs from losing the 1975 World Series to the Reds when Bernie Carbo hit a game-tying home run, setting up CarltonFisk's famous 12th-inning home run off Fenway Park's left field foul pole. Unshaken, the Reds staged a comeback of their own to win Game 7. More recently, in Game 5 of the 2005 NLDS against the Cardinals, the Astros had a 4-2 lead and were one out away from reaching their first World Series when St. Louis got two men on and Albert Pujols cracked a mammoth homer off current Phillies closer Brad Lidge to force a Game 6, but the 'Stros won the extra game handily as Roy Oswalt, Chad Qualls, and current Rays reliever Dan Wheeler held the Cardinals to one run on four hits.
It's tempting to believe that the young Rays will become another of the Walking Dead, unable to come back from their Game 5 collapse. The Red Sox are the defending World Champions and pulled off a similar 1-3 comeback just a year ago. Josh Beckett, despite his struggles this October, has a history of postseason dominance. The Rays bullpen was unable to protect a seven run lead Thursday night. Don't believe it. Beckett is hurting and his struggles this postseason are far more relevant than his past successes. The Rays are hitting the snot out of the ball and coming home to their own ballpark, where they're 9-2 against Boston this season. In three starts against the Red Sox at the Trop this year, James Shields has a 1.59 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP while averaging almost 7 2/3 innings per start, and the Rays pen had yesterday to rest and regroup.
Perhaps most importantly, the Rays are loose. There were more jokes than long faces on the team flight Thursday night because they know they really have nothing to lose. They've already accomplished far more than anyone, themselves included, expected they would this year, and they're a young team with an excellent chance to be back in the postseason in subsequent seasons. As Shields said yesterday, "When it comes down to it, they have more pressure than we do. They're the defending champions. We're a team that finished in last place last year."
There's a difference between a team that's "just happy to be here" and a team with nothing to lose. The latter is very dangerous. The Rays are the latter, and they won't be shaken by their Game 5 loss.
Still, there are two remaining traps into which the Rays could fall. The first is turning back to Wheeler, who gave up the tying runs in Game 5. While Joe Maddon has shown a progressive flexibility with his bullpen, particularly in the absence of injured veteran closer Troy Percival, Wheeler was the man most likely to close a game in Percival's absence this season. Wheeler also pitched 3 1/3 crucial scoreless innings in the Rays' 11-inning win in Game 2, but that was his longest outing since the Mets traded him to Houston in late 2004. Wheeler threw 48 pitches in that Game 2 outing and had nothing left on Thursday night, when he threw another 33 in the process of allowing the Red Sox to tie the game. In fact, Maddon's failure to pull Wheeler in the eighth inning of Game 5 contributed to the Rays loss as much as any other decision made in that entire game. With his pen fully rested, Maddon must avoid the temptation to go back to Wheeler tonight in the interest of both winning the game and allowing Wheeler to recover for the World Series.
Second, while the Rays should come out playing fast and loose yet again tonight, if the Red Sox tear through Maddon's safety net and pull out another win, pushing this series to a Game 7 matchup between Jon Lester and Matt Garza, the Rays very well may be a Walking Dead team Sunday night. Since 1925, 13 teams have gotten out to 3-1 leads in best-of-seven series only to lose Game 5 and 6. Of those 13, just three recovered to win Game 7.