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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.
Nationals aces Max Scherzer, left, and Stephen Strasburg have gone a combined 5-0 with a 1.71 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 42 innings this postseason. Sweeping the Cardinals in the NLCS also means they will get an extra week of rest before the World Series. ANDREW HARNIK | AP Photo [ANDREW HARNIK | AP]
Published Oct. 17

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.


  1. FILE - In this July 24, 2019, file photo, Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws to an Oakland Athletics batter during a baseball game in Houston. Verlander has been awarded his second AL Cy Young Award. MICHAEL WYKE  |  AP
    The Mets’ Jacob deGrom wins the NL award for the second straight year.
  2. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash talks with reporters in the dugout the day after clinching a playoff spot. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Former Ray Rocco Baldelli wins top honors after his first season with the Twins, Aaron Boone was second.
  3. Erik Neander, Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, addresses the media during a press conference at Tropicana Field Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Award came from a vote of team executives; Yankees Cashman was second.
  4. Flanked by his mother, Michelle Alonso, left, father Peter Alonso (blue shirt, standing), girlfriend Haley Walsh, right, and friends, New York Mets rookie first baseman Pete Alonso, 24, reacts as he finds out he has won the National League Rookie of the Year award on Monday at his home in Tampa.  Alonso, a Plant High graduate, made a grand entrance to the big leagues, hitting a major-league rookie and team-record 53 home runs for the Mets. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The easiest part of the day for the travel-weary first baseman may have been receiving the prestigious award.
  5. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash speaks at a news conference before an Oct. 1 American League wild-card game practice in Oakland, Calif. JEFF CHIU  |  AP
    Marc Topkin: The Twins Rocco Baldelli and Yankees Aaron Boone are the other two finalists for the hard-to-define award.
  6. Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe (8) is showered with sunflower seeds after hitting a solo homer in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Former Plant High and Florida star Pete Alonso a favorite for NL Rookie of the Year, to be announced Monday
  7. Erik Neander, Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, says of the general manager meetings, which start this week, "We’d love to find a way to score a lot more runs without sacrificing run prevention.'' DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Rays Tales: Erik Neander says 2019 success provides “a stronger starting point” than they have had in a while. Plus, rumblings.
  8. Manager Kevin Cash has led the Rays to back-to-back seasons of 90 or more victories. He finished third in the American League Manager of the Year voting in 2018 and is one of three finalists again this year with the winner being announced on Tuesday. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    John Romano: His profile is as low as Tampa Bay’s payroll, but AL Manager of the Year candidate Kevin Cash consistently gets the most out of the Rays.
  9. ALLIE GOULDING   |   Times
Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro (33) talks to umpire Bruce Dreckman at the bottom of the fourth inning against Texas Rangers on Sunday, June 30, 2019 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. 
 ALLIE GOULDING  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The other finalists, per a report, are Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.
  10. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) pumps his fist while walking onto the field just prior to taking on the Houston Astros for Game 3 of the American League Division Series in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Charlie Morton is in the top 3 for the Cy Young Award and Brandon Lowe for Rookie of the Year honors as well.