ST. PETERSBURG — It was one decision among one hundred.
And by the time a wild game had ended, it was nearly forgotten and mostly moot.
But for the 10 seconds or so that Rays manager Kevin Cash and pitcher Charlie Morton stood together on a mound Friday night, it felt as if an entire season was hanging in the balance.
It was the seventh inning of a scoreless game against the Red Sox and Morton had just given up his first extra-base hit of the night on his 100th pitch. As if on cue, Cash popped out of the Rays dugout.
Around these parts, that almost always means a decision has already been made. And it usually means the pitcher is heading to the showers. In his previous 801 games as a manager, Cash could only recall one time when he did not pull a pitcher after going to the mound.
But this time, he kept the ball in Morton’s hand. And three pitches later, Mitch Moreland hit a two-run homer.
The outcome was obviously awful.
The decision was not.
That’s the cost of being in a pennant race. At these moments, in this hellfire, there is no margin for error and no explanations worth offering. And since the Rays came back to win 5-4 in 11 innings and remain tied with Cleveland for the second wild card spot, the moment matters little to anyone else.
But for a pitcher and a manager, it says something about their journey.
Cash regrets the decision. Not to leave Morton in the game, but to walk out of the dugout. He had already decided to ride his best horse – the idea Boston could have pinch-hit J.D. Martinez if Cash went to a reliever was also a factor – but wanted to check in with Morton.
“When they see me walking out, they hand me the ball, and basically that’s that,’’ Cash said. “This was just, more or less, out of respect for him to check in on how he was doing. If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have done it.’’
That Cash would pick this moment to stay with his starter is no surprise. And that he would pick this pitcher was even less surprising. The game was that important, and Morton has been that dependable.
“He’s been the glue to the pitching staff, I think would be a good way to phrase it,’’ said pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “What he’s been able to contribute, especially the reliability every 5 to 6 days when we were going through some of those injuries in the second half of the season, has been special.
“We’ve relied upon him in the second half where, in other circumstances, we’d actually rather be trying to scale back. Taking all of that into account, the year that he had, and what he’s meant to us, it’s pretty difficult to articulate.’’
When Cash reached the mound, the discussion was comically brief.
“I’m good,’’ Morton said. “I’ve got this.’’
If Moreland’s home run makes it seem as if Cash’s trust was misplaced or that Morton’s confidence was ill-advised, the pitcher would dispute that characterization.
He got two quick strikes on the Red Sox first baseman. That’s not the sign of a pitcher struggling. It turns out, Morton just went to his curveball one time too many.
“I wanted to stay in the game, I wanted to finish that inning,’’ Morton said. “But if you look at that at-bat there was no indication where I was making bad pitches. I didn’t throw him a great pitch, but I wouldn’t say it was a bad pitch either. And Cash certainly isn’t to blame for coming out. I was 0-2 on him.’’
This time, it didn’t work out for Morton.
And it almost didn’t work out for Cash and the Rays.
But there’s a resiliency to this team that’s difficult to explain.
They have blown more late-inning leads than a pennant contender should. They have survived major injuries that should have crippled a team with Major League Baseball’s smallest payroll. They were passed by the Yankees in the American League East in June, and passed by the Athletics in the wild card race in September.
And still, they have life with nine days remaining.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.