Red Sox, Rays go with their big-game pitchers

Updated: October 17, 2008

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Josh Beckett, left, and James Shields have each suffered losses in the ALCS.


We'll have a battle of big-game pitchers in Game 6. However, I still don't think Boston's Josh Beckett is 100 percent physically. That doesn't mean he's hurt. It means that he's still a little bit rusty from the inactivity in September and, according to the people I've talked to, he doesn't seem to have the same arm speed he has had when he's completely healthy.

And it shows in his numbers. The last start Beckett made, he gave up three leads, something he'd never done in his major league career. In fact, he hadn't given up two leads in any game in his past 72 regular-season starts. So, clearly, he's not the guy he was last year. Not even close. And the radar gun backs that up, as well. Right now, his fastball is in the low 90s instead of the high 90s. But, with all of that, he is still Josh Beckett. And he was upset with the way he pitched in Game 2 in St. Petersburg. This is his chance at redemption. I think he'll pitch well, but I'm just not sure he's physically right enough to live up to his reputation of one of the five greatest postseason pitchers ever.

He'll be dueling Tampa Bay's James Shields, who is the Rays' best pitcher -- and this is precisely why they flipped the rotation and kept him for Game 6. Certainly his record away from Fenway Park is so much better. He was 9-2 at home this year. His nickname is "Big Game James," and this is certainly a big game. In Game 1 of this series, he was beaten by Daisuke Matsuzaka despite pitching well.


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Even with the devastating loss in Game 5, the Rays are in the best possible position with their best pitcher going at home. But the dynamic has changed a little bit with the way things unfolded Thursday night. I'm sure at one point Shields wasn't expecting to pitch again in the LCS. Now, of course, he will. But he really loves this kind of stage, so I'm sure he'll be up for it.

It will be wild at Tropicana Field for Game 6. One of the ticket managers told me he thought the team could have sold 60,000 tickets for Saturday night's game. That's the level of interest right now. I guess some people will say the Rays always wanted to clinch at home anyway, but now the pressure is really on. So it should be really great to watch -- and hear. If Tropicana Field is anything like it was in the division series, it will be an extremely loud building.

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The Red Sox have been in this position. They know what it takes. And they'll have the pitcher who entered this postseason with the best big-game reputation among healthy players (sorry, Curt Schilling) in Josh Beckett pitching Game 6 Saturday night, trying to extend the ALCS to a seventh game.

No team has come back from more 3-1 deficits to win than the Red Sox, and a good number of players are familiar with the way things played out in 2004 and 2007. So beating a team that was 57-24 at home this season does not seem like mission impossible, comparatively speaking.

Red Sox Comebacks From 3-1 ALCS Deficit
  1986 2004 2007 2008
Opponent Angels Yankees Indians Rays
Game 5 obstacle 3 down in 9th 2 down in 8th Cy Young winner CC Sabathia 7 down, 7 outs left
Game 5 final score 7-6 (11) 5-4 (14) 7-1 8-7
Game 6 result BOS, 10-4 BOS, 4-2 BOS, 12-2 ?
Game 7 result BOS, 8-1 BOS, 10-3 BOS, 11-2 ?

Josh Beckett: Past 2 Postseasons
2007 4-0 1.20 .178 4
2008 0-0 11.57 .400 2


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Editor's Note: This was excerpted from a Rob Neyer blog entry Insider on Friday titled "Is Shields really 'Big Game James'?":

There are two ways to explain Shields' nickname, and neither of them has anything to do with his performance. One: It rhymes. Never underestimate the power of the rhyme. Remember Mark "Hard-Hittin'" Whiten? He finished his career with a .415 slugging percentage.

Two: His manager and his teammates believe it. Or they want him to believe it. In Orel Hershiser's 1989 autobiography, he essentially begins his book with a story -- the details of which don't check out, but hey, nobody's perfect -- about the day Tommy Lasorda gave him a nickname. Hershiser, then a rookie, hadn't been going after the hitters, hadn't been trusting his stuff. Hershiser thought he might be getting sent back to the minors. But no; Lasorda just wanted to work his psychological magic …

I've seen guys come and go, son, and you've got it! You gotta go out there and do it on the mound! Take charge! Make 'em hit your best stuff! Be aggressive. Be a bulldog out there. That's gonna be your new name: Bulldog. You know, when we bring you in in the ninth to face Dale Murphy and he hears, "Now pitching, Orel Hershiser," man, he can't wait till you get there! But if he hears, "Now pitching, Bulldog Hershiser," he's thinkin', Oh, no, who's that!? Murphy's gonna be scared to death!

We can't know what would have happened if Lasorda had never given Hershiser a pep talk, and a nickname. But that's a story worth repeating only because Hershiser soon afterward became one of the best pitchers in the National League. This "Big Game James" stuff is harmless, but I suspect it'll eventually be forgotten unless Shields actually pitches brilliantly in a few big games. And beginning Saturday night, he'll have at least one more chance this month.


Inside Edge Here are the most aggressive and patient hitters for the Rays and Red Sox with men in scoring position:

Most aggressive hitters with RISP
(2008 regular season)
Carl Crawford Rays 57.0
Cliff Floyd Rays 50.9
Mark Kotsay Red Sox 49.3
Most patient hitters with RISP
(2008 regular season)
Gabe Gross Rays 39.3
B.J. Upton Rays 38.2
J.D. Drew Red Sox 36.5


1977: Reggie Jackson hits three home runs on three consecutive pitches off three different Dodgers pitchers in Game 6 of the World Series, sending the Yankees to their first world championship in 15 years.

2004: David Ortiz hits an RBI single in the bottom of the 14th inning to score Johnny Damon with the winning run as the Red Sox defeat the Yankees, 5-4, in a game that lasted 5 hours and 49 minutes, the longest game in ALCS history.