Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Short starts continue to put too much burden on Rays bullpen

MIAMI — The end result always should be what counts the most. So for that matter, the Rays had good reason to be smiling as they headed home for another brief stay after Tuesday's 4-3 matinee victory over the Marlins that was their fifth on an eight-game, three-city, two-country road trip.

But it was how they got there that remained cause for concern, a continuation of two related, troubling trends that simply will make ongoing success unsustainable:

A) the starters not working deep enough into games, as Jake Odorizzi lasted only five innings — albeit with no runs — as he threw 107 pitches;

B) the trusted side of the bullpen having to be overly extended, with Alex Colome required to convert a six-out save.

"It's not a good formula," manager Kevin Cash said. "Not that it's not the best, it's a terrible formula. We need to find a way to win ballgames without exhausting everybody. But it's a win, and we're thrilled with it."

That joy may wear off a bit by tonight if they are trying to close out another tight win, as Cash likely will have to do without either of his top relievers — Colome and Erasmo Ramirez, who threw 54 pitches in a losing effort Monday — available.

But that has become the due bill of the starters being so unexpectedly inefficient, Odorizzi's Tuesday outing being the 19th time in 43 games — 44 percent — that a member of the Rays' talented and touted rotation didn't get past the fifth.

"We haven't seen the consistency from our rotation that we've come to expect," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "Starting pitching sets the tone for our club. When we get quality outings, it sets up our pen for success and it gives us the chance to string together wins."

The reasons — or, if you prefer, the excuses — all start to blend.

Whether it's Odorizzi, or 2015 All-Star Chris Archer, or Drew Smyly, or Matt Moore, they talk alternately about an absence of fastball command, a lack of aggressiveness in throwing strikes, an inability to execute pitches when needed. Only Matt Andriese, the junior member, has been the outlier in recent weeks, working through seven and nine in his first two starts.

"That's not like us," Odorizzi said. "I think it's just a rough patch. As long as we win, it looks a little better. It's the games you don't win that it really taxes the bullpen."

There is a certain irony to this dilemma in that after putting obvious limits on certain starters last year and hearing plenty about it, the Rays loosened the reins this season.

The idea was not only to allow the starters the chance to work deeper but to count on it as a way to compensate for the bullpen missing traded Jake McGee and injured Brad Boxberger.

Had that worked as expected, with the offense finally showing the projected improvement the Rays invested in, they would be on substantially higher ground than a game under .500, at 21-22, no longer as early as some keep insisting.

"It stinks right now," Archer said. "Hopefully we get better. Because the way we're scoring runs, we should be in a much better position. I have total confidence it's going to balance out, not only for me but all of us. None us has pitched to our capability."

While they deserve the blame, Cash at times has contributed by getting increasingly impatient in using the hook, which also rankles some of the starters — and extrapolates the wear on the bullpen.

Ultimately, it's up to the starters, individually and collectively, to correct the imbalance.

"We can get ahead of hitters better, we can put away hitters quicker," Archer said. "Obviously there have been stretches of games where all of us have done that. But we haven't done it together — five straight days, 10 straight games, a whole month."

That would be something to see. Especially if Colome, Ramirez and the rest of the relievers got more of a chance to watch.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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