ST. PETERSBURG — The choice was curious. Some might call it gutsy.
Which is the polite way of asking whether the manager had lost his freaking mind.
In the final week of a pennant race, with the tying run at the plate and one out in the ninth against the Red Sox on Monday, Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled closer Emilio Pagan for rookie Colin Poche.
That would be the same Poche who had a 5.03 ERA at that time and had recently blown his sixth save. All Poche did was strike out Christian Vazquez and Xavier Bogaerts on seven pitches. One night later, Poche threw a perfect ninth inning in a tie game against the Yankees.
These were bold decisions, but also by design. Since it became obvious the Rays needed to remake their bullpen this summer, Poche and fellow rookies Nick Anderson and Peter Fairbanks have made a combined 84 appearances in less than three months.
It hasn’t always been smooth, but this collection of young arms ultimately helped to change Tampa Bay’s fortunes in close games. And Cash has never blinked at the thought of relying on Poche.
“He came up here, struck a lot of guys out really, really quick but also gave up some home runs that skewed his numbers,’’ Cash said Wednesday before the Rays’ 4-0 victory over the Yankees at Tropicana Field. “He’s probably prone to (home runs) simply because he throws a lot of fastballs at the top of the zone. If it’s not high enough, good hitters can catch up to it.
“But we’ve had confidence, and hopefully he recognizes the confidence shown in him with what’s taken place over the last couple of games in this environment.’’
It’s been a fascinating journey for Poche who, less than 17 months ago, looked like a throw-in as the player to be named later in the Steven Souza trade with the Diamondbacks.
He racked up phenomenal strikeout numbers in the Rays minor league system, despite a fastball he routinely throws at 92-93 mph. Compare that to Fairbanks, Anderson and Diego Castillo who are closer to the 97-98 range. Pagan and Oliver Drake are more like 94-95.
Yet Poche has run up 70 strikeouts in 50 innings while throwing fastballs nearly 90 percent of the time. What’s the secret? Part of it is a deceptive delivery that keeps the ball hidden until it’s coming out of Poche’s hand. But it’s also a backspin Poche uses that keeps the pitch from sinking like a lot of fastballs.
“He gets so much rotation and spin, the ball doesn’t react the way hitters expect,’’ said catcher Travis d”Arnaud. “You can see it with guys swinging late and swinging underneath it.’’
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A fifth-round pick of the Orioles out of high school in Texas, Poche instead went to the University of Arkansas. His numbers were decent in two years there, but he said coaches miscast him as a groundball pitcher working low in the zone. After Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2015 season, Poche transferred to Dallas Baptist University where he worked with future Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson.
Poche did not get drafted again until the 14th round by Arizona in 2016, but began refining the high fastball that led to 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 2017 and then 15.0 in 2018.
“I have to give Colin credit because he’s 100 percent self-made,’’ said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “He would not be here if it wasn’t for his own curiosity and what he’s done to apply himself with his understanding of a lot of the modern initiatives in pitching.’’
It hasn’t all come easily. Poche had a 7.20 ERA and three blown saves in his first 19 big league appearances. But since mid-July, Poche has gone 3-2 with a 3.30 ERA, 11 holds and two saves.
“They were throwing me out there in high-leverage situations even when I hadn’t strung together a lot of strong outings,’’ Poche said. “They weren’t coming out and saying it, but in my head it was like ‘Okay you’re going to be in these situations, you have to figure it out.’
“If you want to help the team win, you have to figure it out.’’’
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.