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Rays debate when, not if, to use Kazmir

BOSTON — Sometimes, a manager is willing to second-guess himself.

And so it is Sunday evening inside the visitor's clubhouse at Fenway Park.

Joe Maddon walks in, and he walks out. He can't stand to watch, then he can't bear to turn away.

His beloved Arizona Cardinals are in the final seconds of regulation against Dallas, and Maddon seems to be debating whether to watch as the Cowboys line up for a potential tying field goal. The bus outside is ready to go, but Maddon stays in front of the big-screen TV, surrounded by a half-dozen of his players.

The kick is up, and it is good.

Wrong move, Joe.

So maybe Maddon is a tad indecisive in matters of the heart, but the Rays manager has no misgivings when it comes to the Tampa Bay rotation in the American League Championship Series.

No matter what the numbers say, no matter what the critics think, Maddon is sticking with Scott Kazmir in his rotation. In fact, he may even move the left-hander up in the order and start him in Game 5 in Boston.

"His confidence isn't where it needs to be, but I'm not going to waver on that," Maddon said. "I'm not backing down."

Nothing will have a bigger impact on Tampa Bay's World Series dreams than the performance of the starting rotation over the next seven days. And no decision is more critical than the potential starters for Games 5, 6 and 7.

Because of the number of off days built into the ALCS schedule, there is a lot of leeway in a manager's pitching choices. There was even a time when the Rays were considering using James Shields on three days' rest in Game 4, with the idea they could bring him back rested for a potential Game 7.

That possibility went out the window when Shields got locked in a pitcher's duel with Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 1 on Friday night and eventually threw 100 pitches while working into the eighth inning.

So the new choice is whether to use Shields in Game 5 or hold him until Game 6.

On the surface, it seems silly to think the Rays would delay using their most consistent starter, especially when Kazmir is the alternative.

He may be a two-time All-Star and the franchise's all-time leader in victories, but Kazmir is in a serious funk. After going 8-5 with a 2.84 ERA in the season's first few months, Kazmir is 5-3 with a 4.84 ERA since Aug. 1, including his two postseason starts.

But there are several sound reasons for going with Kazmir in Game 5. First of all, it would move Shields' next start to Tropicana Field, where he is a much better pitcher.

Plus, no ballpark has been more unkind to Shields than Fenway, where he is 0-3 with a 10.12 ERA in his career. Conversely, Kazmir has won more games in Fenway (4-4 with a 3.02 ERA) than any stadium other than Tropicana.

It would also help to have Kazmir pitch Game 5 on Thursday because there is an off day on Friday, which would give the bullpen more time to recover if he has another short outing.

Finally, the home-plate umpire for Game 6 will be Derryl Cousins. Kazmir's season began to unravel shortly after he had a run-in with Cousins in Anaheim, afterward harshly criticizing the veteran umpire's strike zone.

But, even without all the numbers and details, the Rays still believe in Kazmir. For all of his rough outings, Kazmir did not give up a run in three of his final six regular-season starts.

And the bottom line is the Rays are 10-3 in his past 13 starts.

"If he just gets into a groove early, you're going to see him pitch very well. I believe that firmly," Maddon said. "So, yes, I have no qualms about starting Kaz here."

Beyond the Shields/Kazmir decision in Games 5 and 6, the Rays could have another intriguing choice in a potential Game 7. Because of the off days, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine will be fully rested for the series finale. That sets up the possibility that Garza and Sonnanstine are auditioning for Game 7 over the next two days.

The Red Sox have their own rotation issues to consider. Josh Beckett has struggled since straining his oblique muscle in the final week of the regular season, leaving his effectiveness in serious doubt.

So Boston manager Terry Francona must make a decision on Beckett, and whether to bring today's starting pitcher Jon Lester back in Game 6 or save him for a potential Game 7.

"You have to be prepared for the decisions you make to come back and bite you in the (butt)," Rays outfielder Fernando Perez said after Game 2. "Both managers are under tremendous pressure."

As for Maddon, he seems entirely comfortable in his choices.

With players teasing him about the Cardinals blowing the lead against the Cowboys in Sunday's NFL game, Maddon walked out of the clubhouse with a smile on his face.

By the way, Arizona came back to win in overtime.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Rays debate when, not if, to use Kazmir 10/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 10:55am]

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