Five easy steps to a Rays win
The Rays have jumped to early leads four of their five games vs. the Red Sox
Rays starter James Shields has pitched well against the Red Sox at the Trop
Big Papi has struggled, but his big Game 5 homer shows he's still dangerous
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the Book According to Joe, there's a time for winning and a time for losing, and that time is exactly a half-hour. Thirty minutes to wallow in a defeat. Thirty minutes to whoop it up after a win. And that's it. Time to move on.
Now, it may seem as if the Rays' loss Thursday in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series is the kind of gut-punch that would stick with a team for a lot longer than that. And, in truth, it just might. The Rays blew a 7-0 lead with seven outs to go. Historically speaking, the 8-7 loss to the Red Sox in Boston was a choke job for the books, a comeback for the ages. It was, by sheer definition, unforgettable.
Still, it's manager Joe Maddon's job to make sure that the Rays brush off Game 5 and move onto Game 6 on Saturday night fresh and forgetful. A Game 6 win by the Rays, back in St. Pete, would forever close the books on that Thursday loss, rendering it nothing more than a curious footnote in an otherwise amazing season.
But how do they put a game like that behind them? "My experience with our group is that we've been very resilient all year," Maddon said Friday. "I've talked about this just being the beginning, and I'm really liking the way our guys are going about this whole process right now."
Sure, we have some evidence of the Rays' resiliency this year. In early June, they were swept by the Red Sox in Boston. The next time they faced the Sox, June 30-July 2 in St. Pete, the Rays did the sweeping. Right before the All-Star break, the Rays went through their biggest losing streak of the season, a seven-game skid that wiped out a four-game lead in the AL East and dropped them into second place. By the end of July, they were back up by three games again.
In early September, they lost to Boston's Jon Lester in a convincing 3-0 shutout, making it seven straight losses to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Rays broke through with wins the following two nights. A week later, they lost a game to the Red Sox in St. Pete. Then they won the next two nights.
They lost their first postseason game on the road, to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field in Game 3 of the division series. The Rays finished them off the next night at the Cell, 6-2. They split the first two games at home in the ALCS. Then they went to Fenway and won the first two games up there.
We know they're a resilient group. But how do they move past a loss like that one? How does a team merely forget that?
Here are five easy steps for the Rays to advance to their first World Series with a win in Game 6:
Come out early
After Daisuke Matsuzaka's smackdown in Game 1, the Rays have not had trouble scoring early in a game. After the sixth inning of the last four games, they have led 8-7, 5-0, 11-1 and 5-0.
A good early lead Saturday against Boston's Josh Beckett, who lasted only 4 1/3 innings in a Game 2 loss, would go a long way toward erasing any lingering bad memories from Game 5. That means the Rays need the meat of the lineup -- specifically B.J. Upton (.400, three homers, 10 RBIs in the ALCS), Carlos Pena (.368, three, six), Carl Crawford (.409, three extra-base hits) and Evan Longoria (.286, four homers, seven RBIs) -- to stay hot. And it wouldn't hurt if leadoff man Akinori Iwamura (.238) got a couple knocks, either.
Ride 'Big Game'James
Maddon shuffled his rotation before Game 5 so he could have right-hander James Shields in this game if he needed him. He needs him. The team needs him. If ever Shields needed to live up to his nickname, now's the time.
The main reason that Maddon put Shields in this position is that Shields pitches much better at Tropicana Field (a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts) than he does on the road (4.82 in 16). Shields pitched wonderfully at the Trop in Game 1 (7 1/3 innings, six hits, two runs), though the Rays lost, 2-0. Shields is, clearly, the team's best pitcher. And he has come up big lately. He had a sub-3.00 ERA in September. He had the big game against the Sox in Game 1. He won Game 1 of the division series against the White Sox (6 1/3 innings, three hits, three runs). This will be bigger than them all.
Stay away from Big Papi
David Ortiz still has only two hits in the ALCS. One was an otherwise meaningless late-game triple in Game 3. But that Game 4 hit ... well, if the Rays want to win, they can't be doing that any more.
Ortiz's three-run homer off reliever Grant Balfour in the seventh-inning was a game-changer, igniting the crowd at Fenway Park and clearly rattling the Rays. The biggest problem; it didn't have to be. The righty Balfour threw Big Papi -- who still is hitting just .105 in this series, and just .167 this postseason -- a fastball that he cranked out to right field. Ortiz should see no fastballs in Game 6 and, if the Rays are smart, no strikes at all. But if the Rays have to pitch to him, they should go with the kind of sliders and big breaking balls that lefty J.P. Howell used to strike him out in the ninth.
Use the Force
The Rays frittered away their homefield advantage in that Game 1 loss to the Red Sox, then gained it back with two wins in Boston. They need to use it now.
No team in baseball had a better home record than the Rays (57-24). Tampa Bay hits better at Tropicana Field (.800 to .728 OPS) and pitches much better (3.30 to 4.34 ERA). They play better defense on the familiar turf of the Trop. Nobody knows the funky catwalks and the roof better than the Rays. And the crowd -- still getting used to the idea of the Rays as winners -- should be good and loud for the home team. The Rays have opened up extra seating at the Trop -- it's not good seating, but it's in the building -- for this game and any others that are played here this postseason, and that bodes well, too. The Rays are 24-3 at the Trop with a crowd of 30,000 or more.
Don't get too cute
The Rays have shown throughout this series -- heck, throughout the year -- that they are the superior team. The record shows it. The statistics bear it out. Now, they need to close this thing.
Maddon is, in a popular term, an unconventional sort of manager. He showed that in Game 5 in a few ways; by declining to use a lefty-on-lefty matchup against Ortiz, by refusing to move his outfield deeper in a critical late-game situation, by deciding against bunting over a leadoff runner in the top of the ninth with the score tied. None of those decisions worked out. Granted, it's hard to fault a manager who brought his team this far and whose every decision, until Game 5, was golden. But Maddon might be better served to go with the odds in a possible series-clincher like this. Because if this thing goes to seven games, all bets are off.