- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2008

This is one of the joys of postseason baseball - dissecting every move a manager makes at a time when every move is magnified because the stakes are so high.

In the postseason, something as simple as the order of a pitching rotation, which is listed among the agate in daily newspapers during the regular season, can become the story of the day. Such is the case now with Joe Maddon’s decision to start Scott Kazmir on Thursday at Fenway Park instead of, as expected, James Shields.

Maddon offered logical reasons for his decision to start Kazmir, who simply has not pitched as well as Shields, in Game 5 against the Boston Red Sox and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who beat the Rays in Game 1.

Kazmir has better numbers at Fenway than Shields, for instance. Kazmir is 4-4 with a 3.02 ERA at Fenway vs. a 2-3 record and a 4.29 ERA against the Red Sox at home. Shields is 0-3 in three starts with a 10.13 ERA at Fenway in his career.

“This has not been his most effective place to pitch, and he’s been very effective at home,” Maddon said. “Kaz has been good here.”

But the logical reason that feels so emotionally wrong is this: Maddon is figuring that, with a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, the Rays can lose Game 5 and still have Game 6 back home in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“You’re looking at not only tomorrow’s game and what can happen, then of course what can happen at home,” Maddon said. “We’re just trying to look at the big picture with the whole thing. … If things don’t work out well tomorrow, we have Shieldsy at home.”

Maddon is playing a dangerous game. His Rays have the Red Sox on the ropes, particularly after the 13-4 beating they put on them Tuesday night. By the end, Boston seemed like a beaten team ready to head for its favorite golf courses for the winter.

The Rays, though, should be trying to finish the job in Game 5.

As everyone knows, the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees and went on to win the World Series. And it was the Red Sox who came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Indians last year and went on to win the World Series.

Now, this is a different situation. Unlike last year, the Red Sox won’t be going back to Fenway if they win Game 5. They also won’t have Curt Schilling, and this time around they may not have the typical postseason version of Josh Beckett.

But they do have Matsuzaka on Thursday night, and he is coming off a near-no hitter in a 2-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 1. If he wins, then you have Beckett in Game 6 - which means the Rays are gambling they will get the struggling Beckett who allowed eight runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings in Game 2, not the lights-out Beckett of postseasons past.

They are counting on not facing the Beckett whose confidence and cockiness as a kid kept him from being a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Tampa Bay was struggling to decide whether to draft Beckett in 1999. The story goes that when Beckett visited the home of then-owner Vince Naimoli before the draft, Beckett called the owner “Vince.” The Devil Rays then went with Josh Hamilton, which didn’t exactly work out.

If that old Beckett is on the mound for Game 6, then you may be looking at Game 7, with all the momentum in Boston’s favor.

Of course, the Rays can make it a moot point. Make no mistake, these Rays are not last year’s Colorado Rockies, who got hot at the end of the season in their stretch run. The Rays have been hot since Opening Day, and, as we have seen from their young lineup, they may indeed be the most talented team in baseball.

But are they good enough to raise the possibility of giving away Game 5, especially against a team that knows how to play to stay alive?

“These guys have played in big games. Every game here is big, so you go play the game, and then hopefully it’s good enough to win and move on and play another game,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

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