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Rays' Brad Boxberger blames early overuse for struggles

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Brad Boxberger (26) after giving up a three run home run to New York Yankees center fielder Slade Heathcott (72) in the ninth inning of the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. The New York Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-1.
Published Sep. 16, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Brad Boxberger's arm feels fine. There's no problem there, or anything else wrong physically. His velocity may be down a tick and command a tad askew, but not enough to be of concern. Nothing glaring in his mechanics.

If there is a reason he's pitching poorly now — and four losses, four blown saves and a 6.92 ERA in his past 15 games sure support the eye test that he is — Boxberger says it's because of how much the Rays have had him pitch.

"It could all be attributed to the use of me," he said before Tuesday's 6-3 win. "There's no set 'closer' here, but I don't know of another team that doesn't call it a 'closer' and has 34 saves. So all of the early use in non-closing situations has probably put a toll onto the recent outings, I guess you can say.

"But I'm not going to blame it on that by any means because there are guys that have more appearances and have more use and all that stuff, so it's part of it. It's just a matter of battling through until the season's over when it's over."

Of course, that sounds like exactly what he's blaming his struggles on.

Primarily, how often — 62 times total, including some non-save situations, such as twice in the seventh inning and eight times in tie games on the road, where some teams won't use their closer until they have a lead.

Also, with how much intensity. Going into play Tuesday, no pitcher in the majors had faced a higher percentage of batters — 89.5, with 222 of 248 — with the game in the balance, a task that can take a physical and mental toll.

"You just look at other closers around the league that have even 25-plus saves, and I can probably guarantee none of them have thrown in the seventh inning this year and not many have probably thrown multiple games tied on the road and all that," Boxberger said. "So those innings add up and those appearances add up. And it is what it is this year."

Boxberger went on to suggest there are further ramifications of "the use in general," noting, without naming names, injuries to current Rays relievers and that he has heard of pitchers who left the Rays and were struggling elsewhere or even had to have surgeries.

The more Boxberger talks, the more it sounds like the problem may be deeper than just a rough stretch of pitching. With another season until he starts making even seven figures via arbitration in 2017, and four until he is a free agent in 2020, he is one of the best bargains among high-leverage relievers in the game, which seems to make him a perfect fit for the Rays. Maybe even at the expense of lefty Jake McGee, who will get a salary hike to around $5 million next year despite two DL stints, and with free agency approaching in 2018 he thus could be trade bait.

But would it be wise to keep Boxberger around, and eventually invest millions in him (and, as a Scott Boras client, it will be every cent he is due), if he doesn't like the way the Rays are doing things?

"When you won't let your starters go deep into games it does put a toll on the pen," Boxberger said. "It's just the way they're going to do it, I guess. If it works out, it's great. But I think we're starting to see the effects of pulling starters after five (innings) every time with the bullpen kind of struggling now with all appearances."

Manager Kevin Cash said, simply, "We feel the way we used Boxberger this year gives us the best chance to win as many games as possible."

With McGee recovering from knee surgery, Kevin Jepsen traded to the Twins and Alex Colome still transitioning to high-leverage work, Cash doesn't have much choice for the rest of this season anyway. As tempting as it might be to try Colome as the closer, there are some risks, including damaging the confidence he has built.

Meanwhile, Boxberger — who wasn't available to pitch Tuesday — knows he is risking putting a bad finish, with 10 losses and six blown saves, on what actually had been a good season, making the All-Star team and ranking second in the AL with 34 saves.

"That's what everyone is going to be talking about," he said. "You can have the conversation of well, he wasn't the closer, but he was. And then if he was on a regular team that used like a real closer, then he wouldn't have been put in half of those situations."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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