CHICAGO — Amid all that has gone wrong for the Rays this year in terms of decision-making and execution, a few things have gone very right.
Certainly high on that list would be Alex Colome's performance in taking over the closer's role when Brad Boxberger was injured in spring training — and for all intents and purpose taking the job away going forward.
"I don't think anyone knew exactly how it was going to turn out, and he's just continued to impress," manager Kevin Cash said. "It's not so much the results, it's the way he's carried himself, the demeanor he has in those big situations."
The results have been impressive, as Colome went into Monday's game against the White Sox having converted 35 saves — fifth most in the AL — in 37 chances, including six of four or more outs, with a 1.84 ERA and .200 opponents average and a trip to the All-Star Game.
But Cash is right in pointing out how well Colome handled the promotion, specifically his sense of calm and air of confidence, especially notable considering he had only a couple of winter ball and none during nine seasons in the minors or majors.
"He took to that role and never flinched at all," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He had a pretty unflappable demeanor prior to that, but he really kind of embraced the role. … He seamlessly slid in there and acted like he'd been there for 10 years."
Colome was used as starter until last season, when he pitched his way into the bullpen with inconsistent performances. But his high-end stuff was too good for him to languish as a long reliever. So after taking the Rays' pitch to simplify his approach by shedding his changeup and curveball to focus on his upper 90s fastball and cutter, he eased into some late-season high-leverage situations and did well.
With Jake McGee traded, Colome figured to have a larger 2016 role. But when Boxberger had mid spring surgery for a core muscle repair that would sideline him for the first two months (then for more after an oblique strain in his first game back), Colome responded.
He said the biggest key was not to change anything, advice he garnered over the years from veteran relievers such as Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta.
"I put in my mind that if I be like nervous or try to do something different in the ninth inning, I could mess up the game," Colome said. "You have to be, like, focused on what you do pitch after pitch and make good pitches."
That he has, further impressing Rays veterans by staying focused and humble.
"He did an excellent job filling in, for a position that voided when I went down'' said Boxberger,'' who had an AL-high 41 saves and was a 2015 All-Star.
Colome will be the 11th pitcher to lead the Rays in saves the past 12 seasons. Though it took the injury for Colome to get his shot, it also fit a pattern.
The Rays tend to adhere to a philosophy that success for relievers is largely unpredictable year to year, so they typically don't commit long years or large dollars, preferring to shuffle and restock. (One exception was trading for Rafael Soriano and paying him $7 million to join a 2010 team that won the AL East.)
To that end, Colome was a bargain this year, making $521,700, and should be again next year at just a slight raise. Boxberger, coming off a somewhat lost year (4-3, 4.84, 0-for-3 in saves), will be arb eligible, though not in line for as much of a raise as he would have been.
What shouldn't be assumed, Hickey said, is a reflection on the degree of difficulty of the task.
"I would absolutely, positively not even remotely say it's not that hard of a job to fill because you have seen what happens when there's other people trying to record those same 25th, 26th and 27th outs," Hickey said.
"You'll get an argument from some of the talking heads about how it's not that difficult or you could do it with anybody, but it certainly takes the right kind of a guy to be able to do it and do it well."
And Colome has been that guy.
"For a first-year closer, I felt great, but I think I can be better, too," Colome said. "I can make my location better, my cutter better. And I think I can be better than this year."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.