1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Rays

Not long ago, the Rays bullpen looked like a disaster. Now it just may carry them to October

John Romano: The late-inning specialists have been nearly unhittable for three weeks, striking out practically half the batters they’ve seen while going 7-0.
Published Aug. 19
Updated Aug. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — Rock bottom wasn’t so long ago. Barely three weeks, as it turns out.

It was late July in Toronto when the Tampa Bay bullpen had its worst meltdown in a summer full of them. The Rays blew a 9-3 lead in the eighth inning against one of the worst teams in the league, and by the end of the night Tampa Bay had been passed by both Oakland and Boston in the wild card standings.

At that moment, the bullpen looked like a fatal concoction of hopeless and helpless. The season felt as if it was slipping away, and the blame was going to be easily conveyed.

MORE RAYS: Tampa Bay’s 2020 spring training schedule announced

So how in the world have the Rays survived?

Better yet, how did the bullpen rescue them?

Because, make no mistake, Tampa Bay’s relievers are responsible for renewing postseason hopes the past three weeks. Specifically, their seven late-inning specialists went 7-0 with eight saves, 13 holds and a 0.83 ERA as the Rays won 14 of their next 18 games after the Toronto debacle.

The most obvious answer was the July 31 trade deadline acquisition of Nick Anderson, who was close to perfect in his first seven appearances in Tampa Bay.

But Anderson’s production accounts for barely 10 percent of the bullpen’s workload. The real answer, the subtle and less-dramatic explanation, is patience. And faith. And a whole lotta of fastballs.

* * *

There was never any doubt about the potential in Tampa Bay’s bullpen.

The Rays had collected a mix of power arms with high swing-and-miss potential, and varying degrees of success in the minors and majors. But there wasn’t one proven commodity in the bunch.

Chaz Roe, with 156 career innings spread across five big league rosters, was the closest thing to a veteran. Jose Alvarado, with eight career saves, was the best facsimile of a closer.

And from mid-May to late July it appeared as if the Rays front office had horribly miscalculated this group’s ability to rise to the occasion. The Rays were routinely blowing close games in the late innings, sometimes as many as three in a week.

But completely remaking the bullpen in mid-season was not going to happen, especially for a team with limited financial resources. So that meant fixing the relievers who were here, and that had more to do with changing their outlook than their sliders or deliveries.

“These guys fight a lot of different things every single day, and they all have lives outside of the game as well that you have to appreciate and understand,’’ said pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “Psychiatry is a huge part, an enormous part, of what we do. My job is to make these guys feel 10 feet tall and stay that way.

“We have a lot of different things we can use now, different tools to measure pitches and performance and such, but at the end of the day the biggest job as staff members is to make sure these guys feel as confident as possible. That’s where we’re at right now.’’

There really is no secret to how this bullpen operates. Tampa Bay favors power arms, and this group is as good as any in the majors from a velocity standpoint.

Alvarado’s average fastball is 98.4 mph. Diego Castillo is 98.3. Anderson is 96.9, Emilio Pagan is 95.5 and Oliver Drake is 93.6. Colin Poche, by comparison, is a soft tosser at 92.9, and yet he gets away with more fastballs (89.4 percent) than anyone else because of his deceptive delivery.

Since late-inning specialists rarely see the same batter more than once in a game, they can typically get away with a smaller arsenal of pitches. And with the margin for error so slim late in game, a swing-and-miss power pitcher can be a lot more valuable than a reliever who throws to contact.

Hence, every one of Tampa Bay’s high-leverage relievers are averaging more than 10 strikeouts per 9 innings, from Anderson (15.3) to Poche (13.6) to Pagan (13.0.) to Roe (11.9) to Alvarado (11.4) to Drake (11.3) to Castillo (10.2).

“They’re confident and they’re on a really good run,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It doesn’t always happen this way. You go through different stretches during a season but right now we need them to be really confident and really good, and they’ve been outstanding.’’

MORE RAYS: Tampa Bay pulls off second straight walk-off win

It certainly helps that Tampa Bay has faced a stretch of mediocre-to-poor teams during the past three weeks. But the key is that they have taken advantage of the opportunity to get themselves back in a groove, and that could carry them when they start facing top-of-the-division opponents again.

“We’re really talented. The stuff we’re running out there is pretty special,’’ Pagan said. “Now, it’s not always going to work out and we’ve had stretches where the results weren’t going our way.

“But as long as we’re pounding the zone, challenging hitters to beat us and as long as we stay confident and attack, I think that sets us up for a run at the postseason.’’

Reversal of fortunes

Since July 28, the back end of the Rays bullpen has been nearly unhittable. These seven relievers have struck out 47 percent of the batters they’ve faced in the past three weeks.

Pitcher W L IP H ER BB K Save Hold ERA
Alvarado 1 0 1.2 1 0 3 2 0 1 0.00
Anderson 2 0 7 1 0 0 17 0 1 0.00
Castillo 1 0 8 8 0 3 10 1 2 0.00
Drake 1 0 7.2 5 1 1 10 0 2 1.17
Pagan 0 0 10 7 1 0 17 6 0 0.90
Poche 1 0 10.2 4 2 4 19 0 4 1.68
Roe 1 0 9.1 4 1 5 15 1 3 0.97
Totals 7 0 54.1 30 5 16 90 8 13 0.83

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes


  1. The Nationals' Juan Soto hits a two-run double off Astros starter Gerrit Cole during the fifth inning of the World Series opener. Soto also hits a solo home run. ERIC GAY  |  AP
    Washington holds on for a 5-4 victory in Houston.
  2. Nicholas, a rescued bottlenose dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, made his World Series pick. Photo provided by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
    The Astros opened as the biggest World Series favorite in 12 seasons. But check out what’s going on poolside at Clearwater Marine Aquarium before making your bets.
  3. Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer warms up during batting practice for baseball's World Series Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Houston. The Houston Astros face the Washington Nationals in Game 1 on Tuesday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) DAVID J. PHILLIP  |  AP
    Predictions from Marc Topkin, Martin Fennelly and John Romano.
  4. Karsyn Waechter, Riley Vigue and Avery Vigue are extending the athletic legacies of their fathers. Alissa Vigue, Special to the Times
    Doug Waechter and former Rays minor-leaguer are passing their love of the game on to their daughters and their teammates
  5. Between the potential of historic pitching matchups, the emergence of Juan Soto and the heroics of Jose Altuve, this Washington-Houston World Series has more going for it than the Vegas odds might suggest. MATT SLOCUM | AP Photo MATT SLOCUM  |  AP
    The Astros are the heaviest favorites the World Series has seen since 2007. Still, there is reason to believe his Fall Classic has memorable moments ahead.
  6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston talks to reporters after an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. The Saints won 31-24. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) BUTCH DILL  |  AP
    Sports Day Tampa Bay: What’s next for the Bucs, Astros-National World Series preview, the Lightning’s short-circuit start
  7. Davey Martinez gained valuable experience as a coach behind Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. But when Maddon exited, the Rays bypassed him for a "new voice," Kevin Cash. Tampa Bay Times
    After failing to land a half-dozen manager jobs, including with the Rays, Martinez and Nats ended up a good match.
  8. Jose Altuve prepares to be mobbed by his teammates at home plate as Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman leaves the field after giving up a walkoff two-run homer to the Astros second baseman in the ninth inning to win Game 6 of the AL Championship Series 6-4 on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. The Astros win the series 4-2 and advance to the World Series to play the Washington Nationals. MATT SLOCUM  |  AP
    New York ties the ALCS Game 6 in the top of the ninth with a two-run HR before the diminutive second baseman wins it with a blast off Aroldis Chapman, putting Houston in the World Series.
  9. In 1968, slugger Frank Howard, known as the "Washington Monument," proved to be one of the few bright spots for the Washington Senators. AP
    The Nationals’ improbable postseason run rekindles memories of the woeful Washington Senators
  10. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, on left, along with Erik Neander, center, senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, and Chaim Bloom, senior vice president of baseball operations, address the media during a press conference at Tropicana Field Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Rays Tales: Research now, action to come as Rays get caught up after playoff run. Plus, TV rating info and rumblings.