By JIMMY GOLEN
AP Sports Writer
BOSTON -- The Tampa Bay Rays are giving Scott Kazmir the chance to pitch them into the World Series.
The 24-year-old left-hander was moved up in the rotation so he could start in the potential AL pennant clincher against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night at Fenway Park. The move keeps Kazmir on his regular rest and bumps scheduled starter James Shields to the if-necessary Game 6 at home Saturday.
"I was very eager for this opportunity to get back out there and try to redeem myself from my last outing," said Kazmir, who allowed five runs in 4 1-3 innings in Game 2. "I'm not really going to think about it too much, about 'This win right here will take us to the World Series.' I'm just going to go out there and have fun. Our team is real loose. It's kind of like we don't even realize the situation that we're in right now."
Kazmir will match up against Daisuke Matsuzaka, who went 18-3 in the regular season and beat the Rays in Game 1 of the AL championship series. The defending World Series champions have lost three in a row since then to fall to the brink of elimination, but it's a position that has served them well: They're 7-1 in elimination games since 2004, including Matsuzaka's victory in Game 7 of the ALCS against Cleveland last year.
"Believe me when I tell you: How he pitches this -- the intensity, the meaning, as much as this game means -- that will help him," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Wednesday, a day after the Rays beat Boston 13-4 to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. "That won't hinder him."
Matsuzaka has been Boston's most reliable pitcher in the playoffs, with the Red Sox winning each of his first two starts. Meanwhile, Jon Lester struggled in his last start, and Josh Beckett has had problems in both of his.
Beckett's problem appears to be the lingering effects of a side strain he sustained at the end of the regular season, an injury that has deprived Boston of the ace who was 6-2 with a 1.73 ERA in his postseason career before this year.
"I'm not Beckett," Matsuzaka said. "But if I can pitch like he did last year and hand the ball off to the guys behind me, that would be great."
If he can, the Red Sox will need Beckett and Lester to rebound in Games 6 and 7 if they're going to have any chance at a third title in five years. In both previous World Series runs, the Red Sox came back from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS -- in 2004 they trailed the Yankees 3-0 -- to win the pennant.
"If we can draw on anything from that, good," Francona said. "Anything that's happened in your past -- you try to turn it into an advantage for you. Saying that, this is a different team, it's a different Tampa team. But, again, we'll use anything we can to give us any kind of advantage."
If the Red Sox can extend the series, the Rays will have Shields and Matt Garza lined up at home.
"We're not looking to give them any kind of crack" in the door, Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We believe that Kaz can pitch well tomorrow. ... We're just trying to look at the big picture with the whole thing."
The 2007 AL strikeout champion, Kazmir started the season on the disabled list with a strained left elbow. He returned early in May and a couple of weeks later signed a three-year, $28.5 million contract extension that would keep him in Tampa Bay through at least 2011.
At the time, the Rays had never finished better than fourth or come close to a .500 record, let alone a playoff berth.
"It was an easy decision for me," he said. "I could just see -- you could just see that we really had something here. ... We have something that's going to last for a long time with all the young guys we have that are still developing."
Maddon said it was part of the plan all along to shuffle the rotation if they went up 3-1, in part because of the travel day Friday that would allow the bullpen to recuperate if Kazmir can't go deep into the game.
"At any moment he can just catch fire," Maddon said. "If he's throwing the ball over the plate, he's making them swing the bat, I'll be happy. Obviously, if walks start popping up, that's the indicator. ... I'll be probably less tolerant tomorrow than I would have been at any other point."
Kazmir also has better numbers at Fenway: He is 4-4 with a 3.02 ERA at Fenway, vs. a 2-3 record and 4.29 ERA against the Red Sox at home. Shields is 0-3 in three starts with a 10.13 ERA at Fenway in his career;
"This has not been his most effective place to pitch, and he's been very effective at home," Maddon said. "Kaz has been good here. And again, you look at what Kaz has done recently, and I understand everybody's trepidation, but I feel strongly about it, we all do. We feel it's the right thing to do right now."