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Rays bullpen will scare opponents, fans from one inning to the next

Tampa Bay’s relievers have all kinds of potential, but are they consistent enough for a pennant race?
Rays reliever Emilio Pagan began the season in the minors without a big-league save but has become Tampa Bay's de facto closer with the struggles and injuries of Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo. [BEN MARGOT   |   Associated Press]
Rays reliever Emilio Pagan began the season in the minors without a big-league save but has become Tampa Bay's de facto closer with the struggles and injuries of Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo. [BEN MARGOT | Associated Press]
Published Aug. 4, 2019|Updated Aug. 4, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Interesting group of guys down there in the Rays bullpen.

One was waived five times in six months last year. One wasn’t even on the 40-man roster two months ago. One spent years playing in an independent league where a typical salary is about $175 a week. And all of them combined have less saves in their careers than Kirby Yates has in San Diego this year.

And now they are here to rescue Tampa Bay’s season.

MORE RAYS: Tampa Bay flexes muscle to beat Marlins

So feel free to kvetch. This is wrong, this is risky, this is reckless. The Rays have a legitimate shot at reaching the postseason, and they are entrusting every precious lead to a group of guys they seem to have found through baseball’s version of a dating site.

And yet it has a chance to work. Maybe even a decent chance.

Because as cheap and unheralded as they are, they also throw as consistently hard as any bullpen in the majors. The question is whether they can consistently handle the pressure.

You saw both sides of that equation in Saturday’s 8-6 victory against the Marlins. The Rays surrendered another seventh-inning lead, and needed late home runs from Austin Meadows and Willy Adames, but Emilio Pagan later shut the door for his team-leading ninth save.

Since bottoming out in Toronto a week ago, Rays openers and relievers have thrown 20 innings, with 29 strikeouts, a 2.70 ERA and four saves.

“As long as we continue to do that in the bullpen where we are not giving the free passes via the walk and executing pitches and going right after guys,’’ manager Kevin Cash said, “we’re going to find out that they’re pretty good.’’

MORE RAYS: Jose Alvarado nears a return

If you’re peering in from the outside, you might wonder what’s the fuss. After all, the Rays bullpen has the second-best ERA in the American League at 3.79.

But that number does not come close to conveying the level of crankiness inspired by relievers this year. For instance, the ERA is skewed by bulk innings provided by Ryan Yarbrough and Jalen Beeks.

Rays relief pitcher Jalen Beeks walks back to the mound as Miami Marlins' Starlin Castro circles the bases after his two-run home run during the third inning of Saturday's game. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Rays relief pitcher Jalen Beeks walks back to the mound as Miami Marlins' Starlin Castro circles the bases after his two-run home run during the third inning of Saturday's game. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Nor does the ERA point out that there are certain situations when the Rays do not pitch as well. Like tie games. Or one-run games. Or, more generally, every stinking close game.

When Chaz Roe coughed up the lead Saturday against the Marlins, it was Tampa Bay’s 18th blown save of the year, tied for the third highest in the AL.

And that doesn’t include the Rays’ horrific record when games are tied in the late innings.

To be fair, part of the problem can be traced to injuries. Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo and Roe have all spent time on the injured list this season. But all three were also struggling before they got hurt.

“The first month was the last time we saw where everybody was kind of clicking,’’ Cash said. “Whether it was injuries or guys going through rough spells, whatever it was, it hasn’t all gelled at one time. But look … Alvarado getting back would be a big piece. But he’s got to come in there and throw strikes. There’s still some work to be done with Diego and some other guys, but we’re encouraged.’’

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There’s no denying this bullpen has potential. Between Castillo, Alvarado, Pagan, Nick Anderson and Andrew Kittredge, the Rays have five relievers who average better than 95 mph on their fastballs.

MORE RAYS: The mistake that shaped Nick Anderson’s life

They already lead the majors with nine different pitchers getting at least one save, and that doesn’t include the recently acquired Anderson, who, presumably, will get the chance to close some games.

The key is finding confidence and consistency, and that’s not easy in the middle of a pennant race. The Rays have been shuttling relievers back and forth to Triple-A Durham so often, it’s not a stretch to imagine some guys might be pitching scared.

At this point, there is no cavalry on the way. The acquisition of Anderson and Trevor Richards at the trade deadline is the last big move, other than Anthony Banda potentially coming off the disabled list.

It’s not the most conventional bullpen, that much is true.

But it’s all the Rays have, so it better work.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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