ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays’ 9-6 loss to the Orioles on Wednesday marked the fifth time in 15 games the Tampa Bay bullpen went into middle or late innings tied or with a one-run lead and blew the game.
It wasn’t that long ago — following a pair of ugly losses in Oakland when right-handed Diego Castillo struggled — when we were saying that help was on the way, that Jose Alvarado’s return would add some stability.
On Wednesday, in his third game back from his lengthy stint on the restricted list, Alvarado allowed a career-high six runs in the ninth inning to a Baltimore Orioles batting order that’s major-league caliber only because of the uniforms they wear.
And after the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash was caught in deja vu, saying the same things about Alvarado that he said about Castillo less than two weeks ago.
“We have to get him right," Cash said of Alvarado. "He’s going to give up some hits at time. More concerning is the fastballs that are well short, at times. Just doesn’t have a consistent release point right now."
The ability to regularly throw high-90s heat is great, but as the Rays are finding out, it does no good if you can't throw those fastballs for strikes.
The ninth inning snowballed on Alvarado Wednesday after he issued a five-pitch leadoff walk to Anthony Santander, who the previous night swung through a Charlie Morton curveball that went through his legs.
Alvarado started the inning with five straight high-90s sinkers. Three weren’t even close to the zone.
"I know that inning kind of unloaded on us, but the leadoff walks are telling," Cash said. "It’s amazing how many times those come around and score.”
After a sacrifice bunt moved Santander to second, Alvarado’s first pitch to pinch hitter Pedro Severino was a wild pitch sinker clocked at 100 mph that moved Santander to third.
“When he gets on a good run, he’s a strike-thrower," Cash said. "He’s not necessarily ever been a command guy. You’ll see a spiked pitch here and there, but it’s happening a little too frequently right now."
That might be a bit of an understatement, and Alvarado isn't alone.
Including Castillo, who landed on the IL with a shoulder strain after his second blown game in Oakland, the Rays have four relievers who have double-digit walk rates, which is the percentage of walks issued in comparison to the number of batters he faces.
You’ll notice some similarities in these names. Roe, Alvarado and Castillo represent the team’s most struggling relievers. Walks have hurt Stanek — who has worked mostly as an opener this season — as well, but they’re less compounded in the first inning than the seventh, eighth or ninth, and he’s done a better job of stranding those runners.
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Wednesday marked just the third time in 29 appearance that Alvarado walked the first batter he faced, but all three of those baserunners scored. Add in the eight hits he allowed to the opening batter, and he’s allowing a .380 on-base percentage to the first batter he faced.
But let’s just keep it to free passes for now.
When it comes to first batter walks, Alvarado isn’t the worst. Roe has issued seven walks in 38 appearances, four of which scored. Two of Castillo’s three first-batter walks scored over 33 outings. While Stanek issued five first-batter walks, only one scored.
As far as Alvarado goes, keep in mind he was away from the team for nearly a month. He had to go through a throwing progression after going on the family emergency medical list, then onto the restricted list to address a personal issue.
After Wednesday's game, Alvarado dismissed any notion he was rusty, saying a mechanical issue with his back leg led to him flying open.
“I feel good. I felt ready to pitch,” he said.
But this much is clear. The Rays need to get better at winning close games. They are 12-20 in games decided by two runs or fewer. And more close games are played down the stretch as the pennant race heats up, and that carries over into the postseason.
A major part of winning those games is is locking games down late, and the Rays bullpen’s biggest enemy is its struggles to throw strikes.
“I don’t know, it’s frustrating," Cash said. "But I don’t really look at it as the bullpen as a whole. They’ve done a lot of good things for us, but we’ve gone on a bit of a tough stretch before winning four in a row. A lot of things were not going well for us.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard