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Tonight, the Boston Red Sox face elimination at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. The Rays lead the Sox 3-1 going into Game Five of the American League Championship Series. The rotation has reset, and both Game One starters, Daisuke Matsuzaka and James Shields, are operating on full rest.

However, Shields will not take the ball for the Rays tonight. Nope, Big Game James, a self-proclaimed nickname, will skip tonight’s start, and instead pitch in Tampa Saturday night if a Game Six is necessary.

Rays manager Joe Maddon has issued a number of excuses for skipping Big Game. First, he claimed he wanted to make sure his bullpen had ample rest if the series were to go back to Tampa. Shields usually goes deep into games, where Scott Kazmir, tonight’s starter, tends to work his pitch count high early, paving the way for an early exit, which would tax the bullpen.

But, if Big Gme started tonight, and won, the bullpen wouldn’t be needed until Game One of the World Series next Wednesday. Interesting.

Then, Maddon claimed he wanted to keep Kazmir away from Saturday’s  plate umpire Deryl Cousins, who tossed Kazmir earlier this year after Kazmir complained one too many times about his small strike zone.

But are we to believe that a professional umpire would hold  vendetta against a player in front of a national audience on one of the biggest stages in professional baseball. Let’s not kid ourselves here.

Something smells fishy, and I think it’s Big Game James.

Aren’t big game pitchers supposed to want the ball in big games? Perhaps Big Game James isn’t Big Game James after all.

As many of you probably remember, Shields was the pitcher responsible for sparking a benches clearing brawl earlier this year after hitting Coco Crisp in his first at bat a day after he slid high into second base. When it comes to the Rays, Shields is probably public enemy number one in Boston right now.

Fenway Park doesn’t forget, and tonight, Shields would be reminded just how much he is loved in Boston every time he touches the ball. That kind of pressure, in a playoff atmosphere, could be catastrophic for a young pitcher.

Let’s say Shields gets rattled and lays an egg on the mound tonight, what do the Rays do next? Kazmir, who has looked bad and hurt for much of the series, would be in line to pitch Game Six against Josh Beckett. Then, the Sox ace, Jon Lester would go in a game Seven. Not looking too good for the Rays, if the series were to play out like that.

My point being, Big Games James is more of  Big Coward than anything.

It is unfathomable to me that a pitcher who is called Big Game by his teamates, although he has never really pitched in a big game, skips a start on full day rests. Not to mention a game in which the Rays can clinch their first trip to the World Series in franchise history.

Imagine Josh Beckett, Roger Clemens, or Pedro Martinez being bumped from a AL Pennant clinching start. It would never happen.

The Rays have a chance to beat the bullies who have made their lives miserable since their inception, and in doing so will clinch a berth in the World Series in THEIR house. Any big game pitcher I know would have to have the National Guard pry the ball out of his hands in a situation like that. Not Big Game James though. He’d rather watch from the dugout and pitch, if needed, in a situation that is more comfortable for him and his coaches. Sounds like it’s time for a new nickname. Any suggestions?


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