ST. PETERSBURG — As the Rays head into their final 21 games with a lead in the AL wild-card race, they are taking advantage of the final year of fully expanded September rosters to make sure they have positional depth, innings coverage and the opportunity to maneuver into those theoretically favorable matchups we know they crave.
They had 34 players available for Tuesday’s doubleheader and more coming, with the potential by month’s end to have 39 active.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “I’m looking forward to it. I really am. Because I think this is going to give us our best chance to win as many games as possible. … We’ve got to be creative. … We’re going to utilize our entire roster. I think that’s what’s going to make us best, is getting that ideal matchup and banking on that.’’
The options will create opportunity for unlikely heroes.
Funky lefty reliever Hoby Milner could get a huge out. Rookie Mike Brosseau may deliver another game-winning hit. Anthony Banda might be the difference in an extra-inning game.
But grinding to the finish, there are some key players the Rays have to be able to count on to step up. “We talk about our big boys coming through for us,’’ Cash said.
Here are our five most crucial to the Rays September success:
1. Tommy Pham, outfielder
One promising sign is that Pham is healthy and heating up at the right time, with hits in 12 of his last 13 games, posting a .412 average and 1.062 OPS. Another is that he welcomes the challenge and accompanying pressure, saying often that it’s “crunch time” and that for the team to succeed he has to do well. Also, that Pham is one of the few guys who has been through a playoffs push and is willing to provide guidance, even with an edge. While his comments about the Orioles pitchers after Monday’s game were most notable, it was also telling he said he was playing music in the clubhouse pregame to hype up teammates because “I don’t think everyone in this locker room kind of understands the situation that’s in front of us.’’ Further, there is some recent history to draw on. After the Rays got Pham at the 2018 trading deadline, they went 27-12, a nearly .700 winning percentage, with him in the starting lineup. So far this year, it’s 73-53, .579.
2. Charlie Morton, starter
Morton has been everything the Rays could have hoped for this season, providing remarkable pitching (14-6, 3.06) and tremendous clubhouse influence. Now they have to hope they don’t break him. Morton is 35, and when he pitches next he’ll match his career-high with 30 starts and after five outs surpass his regular-season innings high of 171 2/3, set in 2011, when he first got to the majors fulltime. (Counting postseason and rehab games, his most is 180⅓ innings in 2017.) The concern is that Morton has been on the disabled list every season since 2011 but this one. That included a late-August stint last year with Houston due to shoulder discomfort, which he said he looked up the other day in comparison because so far this year he feels “really good.’’ With Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell still working back from injuries, and Ryan Yarbrough their only other full-time starter, the Rays need to keep Morton on the mound.
3. Emilio Pagan, reliever
Boyish looks and upbeat personality aside, Pagan turns into a bad man, as his intro song suggests, when he takes the mound in the ninth. In a massive in-season remaking of the bullpen after Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo faltered, Pagan has emerged as the dependable closer they needed, even if Cash doesn’t want to designate him as such. There’s a comfort for the pitcher and the team in having someone in that role and Pagan, who didn’t make the opening day roster and hadn’t saved a big-league game before this season, has emerged. After some initial struggles, Pagan has converted 11 of his last 12 save opportunities and over his last 18 games has a 2.66 ERA, .176 opponents average, 30 strikeouts in 20⅓ innings.
4. Avisail Garcia, outfielder
Garcia and Kevin Kiermaier are similarly important, but in slightly different ways. And given the Rays’ drop-off in production vs. lefty pitchers (.742 OPS vs. .761 vs. righties), Garcia could have a bigger impact. His defense, speed and overall hustle are somewhat overlooked by his hitting, and he also provides some quiet veteran leadership, especially among the Latin players. He is only 7-for-38 with one extra-base hit in 10 games since coming off the injured list, so the Rays are banking on a hot streak coming. If so, Garcia, like Pham, has the ability to carry them for a stretch.
5. Tyler Glasnow/Blake Snell, starters
All things considered, the Rays have done remarkably well since Glasnow strained his forearm in early May (59-45) and Snell needed late-July surgery to remove six bone chips from his elbow (25-14), knocking out two of their original three starters. Both are on track to come back within two weeks, and while it may be pushing it to expect significant impact, having either one on the mound working quality innings, even in abbreviated outings, will allow for better and more creative use of the other pitchers and provide a mental boost for the whole squad.
Five others who also will matter
OF Kevin Kiermaier, game-changing defense is invaluable.
OF Austin Meadows, top run producer and most consistent hitter.
RHP Nick Anderson, next most impactful reliever, one run in 13 games.
LHP Ryan Yarbrough, unsung savior of rotation after string of injuries.
RHP Diego Castillo, can salvage season by using top-end stuff well.
And one longshot
LHP Hoby Milner, could be the lefty specialist they lack.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Folllow @TBTimes_Rays.