LOS ANGELES — The decisions Rays manager Kevin Cash makes in using his bullpen tend to make for interesting debates.
Especially when they don’t work out well, as in Tuesday’s 7-5 loss to the Dodgers.
With every game and every pitch being critical, Cash turned Tuesday to rookies Colin Poche, Pete Fairbanks and Cole Sulser. All had a hand in the defeat that cut the Rays’ lead over Cleveland for the second wild-card spot to one-half game.
The order in which Cash uses the relievers and how long he lets them pitch are often based on matchups, with recent workload also factored in.
The basic concept is based on determining which of the available relievers match up best against specific hitters or a group of hitters in the opposing order and using them in those slots, rather than set innings regardless of the game situation.
But who Cash has to pick from is a different issue.
As well as the Rays did in rebuilding their bullpen on the fly this season, the reality is that they still have a crew that not only is lacking experience in dealing with the pressures of a playoff chase, and certainly not in prominent roles (including closer Emilio Pagan). Some are rookies who never before pitched September, having headed home after the minor-league ends around Sept. 1, or to instructional league.
Instead, Nick Anderson, Poche and Fairbanks are being used in high-leverage situations with vital games on the line. Even Diego Castillo has only done it once before.
"We’re dealing with a lot of challenges right now,'' Cash said. "We’ve got guys that we’re counting on in leverage situations that have never played six months of baseball. They’ve played five months and they’ve gone home. So a lot of that we’re trying to balance — (pitching coach Kyle Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski) do a good job with the workload. Even Nick Anderson, as dominating as he’s been, he’s never played (in) a sixth month. We’re trying to value all those thoughts into these decisions that we’re making.''
As random as Cash’s moves can seem, they usually have a reason behind them, though they obviously don’t always work out. And it’s worth pointing out that, as they knew would be the case, they got only two innings from starter Blake Snell in his first game back so the bullpen had a lot of cover.
Why limit Anderson to 10 pitches when he breezed through the sixth? He’s rarely been used to come out for a second inning, and to keep him available for Wednesday.
Why go to Sulser after Fairbanks made a mess to start the seventh? Being down three runs already, the idea was to save Castillo so he could work two innings on Wednesday, though Sulser made the margin worse by allowing two run-scoring hits.
Why go to Poche, who has had his struggles, in the fifth with a 1-0 lead? And why stick with him after he walked the first batter on four pitches and hit the second?
They don’t really have any other lefty options for one-inning, high leverage stints, and wanted a lefty at that point. With Jose Alvarado’s lost season and Hoby Milner’s injury, Poche is pretty much it, though righty Oliver Drake, who worked the third and fourth, has done a good job with lefty hitters. Otherwise, it’s Jalen Beeks and Anthony Banda.
The Rays think the issue with Poche is mechanical, that he’s not finding the release point to be consistent with the location, and thus getting the deception in his delivery to vex hitters. But Poche said last week in Texas he also felt he needed to make some adjustments mentally. Maybe the long season, and the repeated failures, are weighing on him.
"We need Colin to really be good for us,'' Cash said. "And that’s not looking to put more pressure on him because I’m sure he’s doing that enough of himself. Just go out there and execute pitches, 'cause when he does we’ve seen him be a really, really good pitcher.''
Poche didn’t stick around to talk to reporters after Tuesday’s game. Fairbanks, acquired from Texas in July after making an impressive return from Tommy John surgery, did and was asked if pitching in September, and in a race, is taxing.
“I don’t know if taxing is the right word. It’s a little different, obviously,'' he said. "I haven’t thrown anything outside of (instructional league) in September, and coming off a year where I didn’t pitch at all. I don’t think taxing, but allowing myself to trust who I am and what I bring to the table when I step on the mound and allowing that to happen versus it being physically or mentally draining. It’s just a matter of belief in myself and the process that I went through to get here and the faith the team and the Lord has to put me in those spots. And it’s on me to execute and deliver for them.”
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays