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Rays are innovators, but a pair of aces is still a tough hand to beat

John Romano: In the age of computer models and number crunching, Washington reached the World Series the old-fashioned way. With a pair of proven starting pitchers.

ST. PETERSBURG — The revolution, such as it was, may have hit a snag.

You know all of those cutting-edge ideas the Rays had about openers and bullpen days? And how other teams were quietly trying to duplicate Tampa Bay’s success with multiple pitching changes and shorter outings by starters?

Yeah, this postseason has reminded us of a simple truth:

Nothing beats a dominant starting pitcher.

The Washington Nationals are in the World Series not because their bullpen is stellar — it isn’t. And they didn’t win four straight games in the National League Championship Series because they outslugged the Cardinals — they didn’t.

The Nationals are in the World Series for the first time in franchise history because Max Scherzer (1.80 ERA) and Stephen Strasburg (1.64) are doing a pretty good imitation of (take your pick) Koufax/Drysdale or Schilling/Johnson or Lolich/McLain.

Washington is 6-0 when either Scherzer or Strasburg has started a game this postseason, with the two of them averaging 6-plus innings in every start. The Rays never got six innings out of a single starter in their half-dozen playoff games.

Mind you, that’s not a criticism. It’s more of an observation. And maybe a reminder.

Tampa Bay’s trailblazing ideas for pitching are more out of necessity than choice. If money were no object, I would think the Rays would happily trade their entire bullpen and half their rotation for either Strasburg or Scherzer. But money actually is a big issue in Tampa Bay. And pitchers who make $35 million a year — which is what Strasburg and Scherzer each earned in 2019 — are not a realistic part of the equation around here.

That doesn’t mean the Rays are wrong. And it doesn’t mean a team can’t reach the World Series with a mixture of traditional starters, openers and bullpen days. The Brewers were one victory away from the Fall Classic last year with a similar plan, and the Rays were one victory away from the American League Championship Series this month. Tampa Bay even won a game against the Astros using a bullpen day to beat Justin Verlander.

But, in an era when starters are throwing fewer and fewer innings, it is a reminder of the power of an ace. Or two.

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The Astros could end up being Washington’s opponent in the World Series with a similar 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Gerrit Cole is 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA in three postseason starts and Houston has gone 2-1 in Verlander’s three starts.

In fact, going into Thursday night’s Game 4 of the ALCS, there had been 15 postseason games where one team had a starter throw at least five innings and the opponent’s starter threw less than five innings. The team with the starter throwing 5-plus was 14-1 in those games.

Now some of that is just common sense. If a starter is going five innings or more, it likely means he’s pitching well. Conversely, if a traditional starter is pulled before the end of the fifth, it might be a sign there were some problems. But using relievers for the bulk of a game carries its own risks. More innings mean more stress on a bullpen as a series goes on. And using 4-5 relievers a game increases the chance that one of them will have a bad night.

In some ways, the success we’ve seen in Washington and Houston makes you wonder what might have been in Tampa Bay.

As willing as they have been to use out-of-the-box pitching strategies, the Rays still know the value of an ace. And if all had gone according to plan, they could have come into this postseason with one of the finest rotations in baseball.

Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton might not have quite the pedigree of Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke or Strasburg, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, but they aren’t too far behind. The problem is Glasnow and Snell were coming off injuries and Morton was coming off a career-high number of innings pitched because Tampa Bay could not afford to rest him down the stretch.

Tampa Bay’s bullpen turned out to be more impressive than Houston’s in the ALCS, but the Rays did not have an answer for Cole and Verlander. And that’s why the Astros are still playing and the Rays are not.

Still, there is reason for hope as you watch the remainder of baseball’s postseason. The Rays will be back in 2020 with their innovative ideas, and three top-of-the-rotation arms with Snell, Glasnow and Morton.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.