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Reading Friday's Tea Leaves

How do we know that no one really understands what to make of Thursday night's Red Sox comeback? For starters, ESPN's Baseball Tonight spent an entire segment speaking with a sports psychologist about the Rays "potential state of mind".

Cue the spooky music. It's time to get that ready for Halloween anyway, isn't it?

Interestingly, as the dust begins to settle most analysts still seem to think they'll be anointing the Rays as new AL champions on Saturday night (or early Saturday morning, if these games keep up the late-night drama). Chief among those prognosticators is venerable Post columnist and Baseball Insider's own Thomas Boswell, who went with his heart and the Rays first in a chat and then, hours later, in a more fleshed-out, detailed column right here.

Of course, Boswell's faith is still predicated largely on Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon's ability to have his team regroup after a night which Boz readily called one of Maddon's worst.

It's not just Maddon that the Rays have to worry about, of course. The psyche of the team's terrific bullpen would seem to be an even more important factor. After David Ortiz took power-pitching Aussie Grant Balfour deep on the 114th fastball he'd thrown this postseason (he's thrown a total of only 118 pitches), Maddon reached and went with closer Dan Wheeler early, hoping to preserve the game and his bullpen's dominance heading into the World Series.

What he got was yet another bruised ego when, in the eighth, J.D. Drew socked a two-run homer off Wheeler and -- after Wheeler struck out Sean Casey on a series of nasty breaking pitches -- he gave up the game-tying hit to center fielder Coco Crisp when he decided to toss an astounding 10 straight fastballs, which Crisp repeatedly fouled off until ripping a single.

So much for the untouchable psyche of the fill-in closer.

When Wheeler falters, the Rays always have Longhorn star turned crafty lefty J.P. Howell, right? Sorry Tampa fans, he was touched up for the game-winning hit and run by J.D. Drew, who took advantage of a hitter's count exactly five years to the minute after Aaron Boone launched an ALCS-winning walk-off shot on a pitch by Boston's Tim Wakefield.

So what's a hipster-dressing new aged manager to do? According to Post and Baseball Insider primo Dave Sheinin, you give the ball over to Rays ace James Shields as fast as possible. In fact, Shields is so confident he'll readily tell you this:

"It's the same way it's been all year," said James Shields, the right-handed ace who gets the ball for the Rays in Game 6. "We're relaxed, having fun, enjoying the moment. . . . [Thursday] night's game was a washout as far as we're concerned. We're still up 3-2. We're still in good shape."

Relaxed and having fun is exactly where the Rays want to be, and it's exactly where the Red Sox want to be when erstwhile ace turned walking oblique strain-hindered star Josh Beckett takes the mound. According to Boston Manager Terry Francona and anyone else in a Boston shirt on Friday, they're not worried about Beckett's ability to compete.

That seems awful hard to believe. Almost as hard to believe as Tampa Bay entering Game 6 as loose and dangerous as they were in Fenway Park. If both teams are as laid back and ready to go as they profess to be, we all may be in for quite the showdown.

If they're both feeling tight? We'll probably still get a showdown, it'll just appear in a very different portrait than the one painted by Maddon, Francona and co. on Friday.

By Cameron Smith  |  October 18, 2008; 1:13 AM ET
Categories:  Rays , Red Sox  
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Next: The First Casualty of Game 6: College Football

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