Who faces the most pressure tonight? If the Red Sox lose, their season is unceremoniously ended. But if the Rays lose, they live to play another game. Advantage Rays.
Much is made of playoff experience, which this young Rays team mostly lacks; the franchise has played a grand total of nine playoff games -- all of them this season. But, as of yet, it hasn't seemed to matter. Will the Rays' monumental Game 5 implosion come back to haunt them? Was it the start of a post-season meltdown by a young and inexperienced team? We'll know soon enough, as the Rays are given a chance to reveal their mettle this evening.
Tampa sends James "Big Game" Shields to the mound tonight -- a player who had never pitched in any big games before earning his absurd nickname. As it stands, Shields has pitched in exactly two "Big Games," both this season. In those two playoff games, "BIg Game James" is 1-1, with a 3.29 ERA. When you're the Rays, that constitutes Big Game status. Meanwhile, back in reality, it amounts to novice status. Simply put, Shields was anointed far too early.
That's not to say that Shields and the Rays won't win. At this point, to call Josh Beckett unpredictable is not only overly kind, but also inaccurate. The big Texan's fastball -- his best and most dominating pitch -- has dropped from about 97 mph to around 92, a huge difference to a big league pitcher and the big league hitters he faces. Whether it's Beckett's elbow, his oblique muscle, or both, is unknown. And what difference does it make? He needs to undergo a rather spontaneous and miraculous healing, one way or the other, if the Sox are to stand a chance.
The fact that the Rays find themselves on the brink of a World Series birth is phenomenal; it's like something out of the Twilight Zone. Suddenly, the world has been turned upside down; nothing seems right. After all, this is a team that never won more than 70 games in any of its first ten seasons. And now here they are, hoping to eliminate the defending World Series Champions with a win tonight, and subsequently earn a chance at their own World Championship.
Yes, this seems rather bizarre. All of it seems too soon, too early, for the Rays. They don't seem to have earned their place at the playoff table. And yet, here they are anyway. The Red Sox -- a truly historic franchise, and the best team this decade -- appear worthy of the opportunity to return to the World Series; but not the Rays.
However, the Rays won the AL East and finished two games ahead of the Red Sox. Don't tell them they don't belong. They are playing out of their minds and above their heads this post-season, just as they did all year long. They're too green and too naive to know any better, or to face any self-doubt or jitters this post-season. They feel that all the pressure is still on the Red Sox, and it is. The Sox were expected to prevail -- the defending Champs are supposed to prevail -- and now they are facing elimination once again, just as they have in eight consecutive ALCS games, dating back to 2004.
At some point the Red Sox incredible streak of victories in must-win games has to run out; the odds dictate it. The question is, when? The Sox (and their fans) hope that streak continues for at least two more games, and that the supposed advantage of post-season experience finally adds up and benefits them, while the lack of it finally catches up to the Rays.
Tonight we'll find out which pitcher really is Big Game. Can an injured and diminished Josh Beckett get by on guile, will, smarts and experience alone, despite not possessing his best stuff? Or will "Big Game James" finally be worthy of his prematurely granted nickname?
It's not all on Beckett; the Sox offense must show up too. They've been trounced by scores of 9-1 and 13-4 in this series. For the better part of three consecutive games, the Sox have shown no heart, no honor, no desire and no championship spirit. Players talk about "leaving it all on the field." During most of this aforementioned stretch, the Sox have looked as if they left it all in the locker room.
Maybe the sleeping giant has finally been stirred. Maybe veteran presence and experience really does matter after all. The Red Sox have come back after being down 3-0 against the Yanks in '04, and 3-1 against Cleveland last year. They've been here before. Tonight they need both the real Josh Beckett and the real Sox offense to show up, simultaneously. That is the key.
Starting at 8PM EST, all will be revealed.
Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.