The Turning Point: Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon announced on ESPN's "First Take"this morning that left-hander Scott Kazmir — and not righty James Shields as had been scheduled —will start Game 5 of the ALCS tonight. The move is viewed in some circles as a surprise (and in the same circle, as not a surprise), but Maddon has been toying in the media the past couple of days the possibility of flip-flopping Shields and Kazmir.
The Question: Should Maddon, who has pushed most of the right buttons so far, be switching Kazmir and Shields with the team on the brink of a World Series appearance?
Yes, your honor: Maddon asserts (you can read the enlightening quote in a moment) that the Rays bullpen will be fresher Thursday after resting today, and would be fresher for a potential Game 7, if he juggles the order. As much as the Rays could end the series now, Maddon planning for contingencies is prudent. Kazmir, even at his best, usually requires two or three relievers (sometimes the whole bullpen) to reel in the victory. Another thing: Kazmir has a 3.02 ERA in 11 career appearances at Fenway. A third thing: Kazmir got into a tiff with umpire Derryl Cousins earlier in the season and he's scheduled to be behind the plate for Game 6. They can avoid each other this way.
No, your honor: Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey had originally slated Shields for this game for a reason. Actually, probably for several reasons. It's Shields' turn in the rotation. He's the Rays best pitcher at this moment (maybe it was Kazmir, or will be Matt Garza, but right now Shields is the man). The Rays can advance to the World Series now. Go with your best pitcher on five days of rest. Otherwise, further risk igniting another Red Sox comeback, like in '07 and '04.
Hindsight is 20/20: Seeing as this is more "first-guess" than second, we don't have the benefit of hindsight yet. One possibility: Maddon should have used righty Edwin Jackson in the rotation instead of Kazmir, who might still be battling elbow problems. Another: The way the Rays have been hitting, Maddon, himself, could go out there and pitch and keep his club in the game. For those wondering, Maddon is not worried about setting up his World Series rotation. He's not thinking that much into the future, because, A) it starts a week from now and, B) he knows the ALCS ain't over yet.
"We like using [Kazmir] with the day off coming afterwards; we're better able to utilize our bullpen that way. It also lets us pitch Shields at home," where he's 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA. — Maddon, on the switch.
"I really enjoy playing on a field like this, where it kind of just feels like the fans are right on top of you and you really have that adrenaline going. You have that atmosphere there, so [I've] just been fortunate enough to have some good outings here." — Kazmir, on pitching at Fenway.
"I never said anything like this about an umpire before but that was just a crucial part of the game and you just don't do that. Makeup calls or not makeup calls — call it when it's there, you know what I mean? You shouldn't change your strike zone because of the count. It doesn't make sense.'' — Kazmir, on Cousins from last July.
Stew Verdict — Joe knows: Don't mess with the umpire, because the umpire is always right. Shields would be the best choice in ideal circumstances, but the playoffs rarely offer them.