Tampa Bay Turns To Kazmir Tonight

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

BOSTON, Oct. 15 -- The Tampa Bay Rays are in full command of the American League Championship Series, up three games to one on the Boston Red Sox following two straight wins on Boston's home turf. So why would they make a move as drastic and forced as flip-flopping their top two starting pitchers heading into Thursday night's Game 5?

Because, the Rays say, Scott Kazmir -- who will start Game 5 against Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka -- has a better history at Fenway Park (4-4, 3.02 ERA) than does James Shields (0-3, 10.12), who would start Game 6 on Saturday in St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition, if Kazmir struggles early, as he has been wont to do lately, the off-days Wednesday and Friday would give their bullpen a cushion on both ends.

"We like the fact [Kazmir] is pitching with an open day following, [with] the ability to utilize the entire bullpen," Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. "We also like the idea of him pitching here and . . . Shields pitching at home, if necessary."

The subtext of the decision, however, is that the Rays are expecting Kazmir to struggle, and needed to prepare their bullpen accordingly -- although Maddon disputed this interpretation.

"We're not looking to give [the Red Sox] any kind of crack," Maddon said. "Listen, this young man is a tremendous talent. At any moment he can just catch fire. The arm is fine."

Both Maddon and Kazmir said they were not swayed by the fact Kazmir has a history with umpire Derryl Cousins, who is scheduled to work behind the plate in Game 6, stemming from a game this season when Cousins ejected both of them for arguing balls and strikes.

"I think that was a coincidence," Kazmir said. "It didn't bother me at all."

Varitek Is Still in Play

Despite his acute offensive woes, there is little chance Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek will remain on the bench, where he sat for Game 4 and watched backup Kevin Cash hit a home run. The Red Sox see Varitek's contribution as a handler of pitchers as outweighing the lack of production at the plate.

"When Jason puts a finger down [to call a pitch], there's a pretty good chance that the pitcher is throwing that pitch with conviction," Manager Terry Francona said. "That doesn't happen overnight. That takes a long time, and [Varitek] deserves that. It really does help."

Matsuzaka echoed that sentiment, saying through an interpreter, "For two years, over all those games that Varitek has caught for me, I've been able to pitch with less and less stress over that time, and that has certainly helped in my performance, as well."

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