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10/17/08 6:00 PM EST

Spin Forward: 'Pens must be mighty

Relief pitching could be key to deciding AL champion

ST. PETERSBURG -- Postseason complete games have pretty much gone the way of dollar-a-gallon gasoline, so it is blatantly obvious that bullpens are on the front lines of playoff battles.

In Thursday night's seismic Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox's bullpen trumped that of Tampa Bay.

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The Rays' bullpen picked the wrong time for a flashback to 2007, when in a different combination, it comprised the Majors' worst bullpen in a half-century. The relief corps' 2008 improvement has been credited with being the biggest factor in Tampa Bay's ascension.

Game 5 was a glitch for the relievers, who allowed nine hits and eight runs in 2 2/3 innings after Scott Kazmir's two-hit shutout for six.

It was also a bump for the man waving them in; manager Joe Maddon was grilled for allowing right-hander Grant Balfour, rather than one of his available lefties, to face David Ortiz in the seventh.

Ortiz's three-run grenade detonated the Fenway festivities.

As everyone regroups for Game 6 Saturday at 8:07 p.m. ET, the prevalent question concerns whether Thursday's events were an aberration or a trend.

Can Boston's bullpen keep it up, and can Tampa Bay's crank it back up?

"Our 'pen has been outstanding all year," said Rays first baseman Carlos Pena. "Sometimes you've just got to tip your cap to the other guys; their hits just kept coming.

"Balfour ... he's got one of the best arms in the American League. He just got hit. Like I told him [Thursday] night, 'Keep your head up. You're one of the best out there.'"

James ShieldsJosh Beckett
2008 regular season
Overall33 GS, 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 40 BB, 160 K27 GS, 12-10, 4.03, 34 BB, 172 K
Key stat4.00 SO/BB ratio (6 AL)8.8 SO per 9 IP (2nd AL)
20082 GS, 1-1, 3.292 GS, 0-0, 11.57
Career2 GS, 1-1, 3.2911 GS, 6-2, 2.85
At Tropicana Field
200817 GS, 8-3, 2.583 GS, 0-1, 4.66
Career43 GS, 19-9, 3.235 GS, 1-2, 3.90
Against this opponent (including ALCS)
2008 season5 GS, 2-3, 4.986 GS, 2-1, 4.12
Career9 GS, 2-5, 4.8111 GS, 5-3, 4.06
Loves to faceJacoby Ellsbury (1-for-16)Carl Crawford (2-for-12)
Hates to faceDustin Pedroia (6-for-13)Evan Longoria (7-for-15)

Plenty occurred in Boston's 8-7 triumph -- enough to perhaps inspire entire future books devoted to all the twists and turns of the greatest comeback in LCS history.

But all the dramatics were set up by Boston's relief -- five innings, three hits -- of rattled starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Rays relievers' implosion.

That game provided plenty of novelties, besides Boston's rage back from a 7-0 deficit with seven outs left in its postseason life:

• Jonathan Papelbon entered a game in the seventh inning for the first time since becoming the Red Sox's closer in 2006.

Pap's first seventh-inning appearance since Oct. 7, 2005 in Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the White Sox -- when Keith Foulke and Mike Timlin still shared the back end of the Boston bullpen -- helped turn off the effusive Tampa Bay offense and give the comeback a chance.

"I was prepared for that. They told me to be ready," said Papelbon, who was alerted even before the game began, not as it developed. "Whenever, my job is to go get outs."

"I wasn't surprised to see him [in the seventh]. It was an elimination game for them," Pena said. "They had to use their entire arsenal."

• The three Tampa Bay relievers -- Balfour, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell -- allowed all eight Boston runs. The Rays' previously biggest blown 2008 lead for a loss: three runs.

"Between [Balfour and Wheeler], I was really looking to get nine outs somehow -- five and four, four and five ... whatever," Maddon detailed. "It just didn't work out."

Ironically, Howell struck out Ortiz in the ninth (although he did wind up allowing the game-losing hit to another left-handed hitter, J.D. Drew).

Maddon brushed off criticism for not bringing in Howell or fellow lefty Trever Miller for Ortiz in the seventh, with peerless logic: Balfour, the hard-throwing and intense right-hander, had not allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter since Sept. 30, 2004, to Hideki Matsui of the Yankees; furthermore, he held southpaw swingers to a .120 average in 2008.

"Do the second-guessers realize that?" Maddon wondered. "Physically [Balfour] was fine, and Papi just got him. It's just one of those things.

"Those who have watched us all year understand that these guys have handled those moments extremely well."

• Until Thursday night's events, Tampa Bay had been 38-0 when leading by five-plus runs. Counting postseason games, the Rays had also been 80-5 when leading after seven innings; they still clung to a 7-4 lead entering the eighth.

"Fortunately, there is a tomorrow," said Wheeler, who has thrown 81 pitches in working 4 2/3 innings in Games 2 and 5, but said he is ready for more.

Although they are young, one of the overall youngest teams in the Majors, the Rays do suffer from one "senior" malady -- short-term memory loss. They were prone to consign any tough loss during the season to the "30 minutes, then forget about it" category.

"Our bullpen has always been strong," said third baseman Evan Longoria. "What we saw [Thursday night] was a little different, but we're not going to put the blame on anyone. We win as a team and lose as a team."

And come back and try again as a team.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.