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.
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.
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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.’’
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.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes