Rays' Kazmir answers critics, then bullpen loses lead

Scott Kazmir, named the Game 5 starter by Joe Maddon to a chorus of disbelief, celebrates with catcher Dioner Navarro as they leave the field after the sixth inning with a 5-0 lead. But with the score up to 7-0 in the seventh, the bullpen unraveled.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Scott Kazmir, named the Game 5 starter by Joe Maddon to a chorus of disbelief, celebrates with catcher Dioner Navarro as they leave the field after the sixth inning with a 5-0 lead. But with the score up to 7-0 in the seventh, the bullpen unraveled.

BOSTON — Scott Kazmir confirmed Joe Maddon was a genius Thursday night.

And then Dan Wheeler came out and took a big swipe at his manager's IQ.

For more than 24 hours, Maddon had been criticized and Kazmir marginalized after the manager announced he was adjusting his rotation between Games 4 and 5 of the American League Championship Series.

Turns out, that move was brilliant. It was inspired. It was an in-your-face moment for a nation of critics. Kazmir threw six innings of two-hit, shutout ball as the Rays moved to within nine outs of winning the AL pennant.

The problem is what followed. The Rays bullpen had its biggest collapse of the season, and Maddon contributed to the mayhem by sticking with Wheeler for what seemed an eternity in the eighth inning.

So was this a blunder by Maddon? Perhaps. Wheeler has been the team's de facto closer since Troy Percival went down, but the Rays did have J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford fresh in the bullpen.

Still, it's hard to blame a manager when his three best relievers combine to give up eight runs in less than three innings of work. And, in the end, it might not have mattered if Wheeler had been taken out sooner. Howell, after all, did not look strong while giving up the winning run in the ninth.

Still, there are moments to be analyzed, dissected and reviewed. There are moments in every postseason that are second-guessed for years to come. And the eighth inning of Game 5 might be one.

Of the first six batters he faced Thursday night, Wheeler gave up a walk, a homer and a double. As he labored through a 10-pitch at-bat to Coco Crisp, it felt like the battle was already lost.

Sure enough, Crisp lined a single to rightfield to wipe out the lead and every bit of momentum the Rays had built through 24 innings in Fenway Park.

"I felt good about Danny," Maddon said. "He was going to go as far as I thought he could, and then we had J.P. and Chad ready."

To be honest about this, Maddon deserves the benefit of the doubt on his next 99 decisions. Virtually everything the manager has touched this season has turned to gold. He is a hands-down favorite for manager of the year.

So if he had confidence in Wheeler getting the job done — just as he did in the 11-inning Game 2 victory on Saturday night at Tropicana Field — then it's probably safe to assume it was the right move.

"I just wanted to stop the bleeding at that point," Maddon said.

And the Kazmir decision may still prove to be the move that brings an American League pennant to Tampa Bay.

For not only did the move work on Thursday night — and it's impossible to argue that it wasn't the correct choice even with the Rays loss — but it could also be a huge factor in Game 6.

By going with Kazmir in Game 5, the Rays now have Shields prepared to pitch against the Red Sox on Saturday night. So instead of Shields throwing in Fenway Park —where he was 0-3 with a 10.12 ERA in his career — the right-hander will pitch at Tropicana Field, where he has a 19-8 record with a 3.25 ERA.

That is the point critics failed to grasp when they were blasting Maddon all day Thursday. It was impossible to turn on a radio, log on the Internet or pick up a newspaper without hearing how Maddon had just allowed the Red Sox back in the series by choosing to pitch Kazmir instead of Shields.

The tabloid Boston Herald ran a picture of Maddon under the headline "Ray of Dope" on its back page.

Never mind that the move made sense on a variety of levels. Never mind that, historically, Kazmir has been a much better pitcher than Shields at Fenway Park. Never mind that Kazmir is a two-time All-Star and had the best ERA of any starting pitcher on the Rays roster this season.

Maddon correctly read Kazmir's mood, and understood the Rays left-hander was taking the mound with a point to prove.

The longer he was on the mound, the better Kazmir looked. The Red Sox were clearly putting pressure on him by taking as many pitches as possible.

But the more strikes Kazmir threw, the fewer alternatives the Red Sox had. Kazmir retired the last eight batters he faced, including four on strikeouts.

When he left the game after six innings, it appeared Kazmir and Maddon would be having the last laugh. The Rays had a huge lead, a rested bullpen and a world of confidence.

Instead, it was the Red Sox who found their second wind.

And, as it turns out, may have invited a world of second guessing in Tampa Bay.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Rays' Kazmir answers critics, then bullpen loses lead 10/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:34pm]

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