Sox have lineup decisions vs. Kazmir
Francona has many options to play with in critical Game 5
BOSTON -- Rays manager Joe Maddon elected to deviate from his original pitching rotation for Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, opting to pitch Scott Kazmir instead of scheduled probable James Shields on Thursday.
That's a given.
What is yet to be seen is how Boston will respond to Tampa Bay's move of sending the lefty Kazmir to the hill at Fenway Park.
During Wednesday's off-day media session, Red Sox manager Terry Francona wasn't fazed by Maddon's move to start Kazmir, who earned a no-decision in Game 2 -- a 9-8 Tampa Bay win in which the young hurler allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Already in a 3-1 series deficit, Francona's mind was on crawling back into this series.
"Our job is to win regardless who is pitching," he said. "Whether it's Shields, Kazmir -- if they win, it's not good. ... They can do whatever they want. It's their right."
Yet being in such a significant hole, Francona's lineup could make the difference between shifting the series back to St. Petersburg and going home for the winter.
Kazmir is 6-7 lifetime against the Sox, owning a 4-4 record with a 3.02 ERA at Fenway Park. He is winless at Fenway over two starts (0-1) in 2008.
The Sox are already a struggling offensive unit, and with the lefty on the hill, there's a good chance switch-hitting Coco Crisp will be in the lineup in some capacity.
Crisp played in Game 2 as the center fielder with Jacoby Ellsbury moving to right in place of J.D. Drew. But Ellsbury is hitless in his last four starts and was benched for Game 4's 13-4 loss on Tuesday. The prospect of facing the southpaw Kazmir might mean Ellsbury will sit again in Game 5.
The catch here is even though both are left-handed hitters, Ellsbury is a .286 career hitter against Kazmir. Drew, who is almost certain to play right, hits a mere .143.
Kazmir vs. Red Sox in 2008
If Ellsbury again doesn't play, that leaves Francona to decide who hits in the leadoff spot. On Tuesday, Drew batted first instead of Crisp because of his patented patience at the plate. Crisp is a free-swinger, which is what makes him so effective in the box.
Francona constantly alludes to not wanting to change Crisp's style, and given that he is 9-for-30 with three doubles against Kazmir in his career, Francona might not want to mess with Crisp's approach. But a leadoff hitter traditionally wants to make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches, something that might not happen in Crisp's case.
Who could potentially jump into that leadoff spot? Consider switch-hitting shortstop Jed Lowrie.
Francona changed his lineup around significantly on Tuesday, showing he's not afraid to mix things up with a struggling offense that includes David Ortiz (3-for-31 in the postseason).
Given Lowrie is a switch hitter that bats .338 as a righty as opposed to .222 as a lefty -- and has an on-base percentage that's 100 points higher from the right side of the plate -- he might be a strong choice to bat first if Ellsbury doesn't start.
Then, at first base, there's another possibility. Mark Kotsay has started all but one postseason game at first, but he's a lefty that bats a career .167 (2-for-12) against Kazmir.
There are two possibilities to alter the lineup: Either Sean Casey starts at first (he's never faced Kazmir) or Kevin Youkilis jumps back to first, Lowrie moves to third and Alex Cora gets the start at shortstop.
Cora is batting .250 in three games this postseason, and he is a career .286 hitter against Kazmir in seven plate appearances.
Still, Francona maintained on Wednesday that Kazmir's start doesn't change much. It's still a game that needs to be won if the Sox want to extend their season.
"I don't know that it'll affect who we play," Francona said. "It may affect our batting order. We'll go down and -- we've been looking at it a little bit and we'll continue to do that."
Leave it up to speculation, but how Francona allocates his switch-hitters and matchups against the 23-year-old Kazmir might make the difference.
Kazmir's Game 2 start was the last time Boston's offense looked capable of keeping pace with Rays' pitching, having been outscored 22-5 in the last two games.
Whatever the plan of attack, the margin for error is nonexistent from here on out. If the Sox hope to repeat as World Champions, they'll need to break out the bats against Kazmir on Thursday night.
Mark Remme is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.