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Rays have decisions to make before facing Astros

Adding a 14th pitcher and setting the rest of the rotation are atop Tampa Bay’s to-do list for the American League Championship Series.
The Rays' Josh Fleming pitches during a game against the Phillies on Sept. 27, 2020, at Tropicana Field.
The Rays' Josh Fleming pitches during a game against the Phillies on Sept. 27, 2020, at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 11, 2020
Updated Oct. 11, 2020

SAN DIEGO — The Rays will start left-hander Blake Snell in Sunday night’s opening game of the American League Championship Series against the Astros.

And that’s about all they were sure of Saturday, as the Rays took time to recover from Friday’s tense 2-1 elimination of the Yankees and the celebration afterward, and began planning for the best-of-seven series with an Astros team they haven’t faced since last year’s playoff loss. And, due to another 2020 change, they will play on consecutive days, so potentially seven games in a row.

Among the tasks:

• Deciding the best configuration for the 28-man roster they have to submit by 10 a.m. Pacific time Sunday. The expectation is they will add a pitcher, after carrying 13 for the first two rounds, and drop a position player. Rookie lefty Josh Fleming, who went 5-0, 2.78 in seven appearances (five starts), would seem the most likely candidate as he could provide length to start or work behind an opener. Other options could be a lefty reliever as Jose Alvarado and Ryan Sherriff both threw to hitters Friday. Right-hander Brent Honeywell, who has not yet pitched in the majors, also could be a candidate. Outfielder Brett Phillips might be most expendable from the position-player group given the return of Austin Meadows.

• Setting the rotation after Snell. Charlie Morton would seem likely for Monday’s Game 2 on regular rest, though the Rays, as always, could get creative, especially if Fleming is added to the roster. Lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who worked behind an opener in Thursday’s Game 4 of the Division Series, and Tyler Glasnow, who worked 2⅓ innings Friday after five Tuesday, figure to slot in after that. Another factor is the availability of the relievers, including the three — Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo — who threw at least two innings each Friday.

• Converting the data and reports from their scouts (who like all others have had to work remotely this year) into information their hitters can use to get a better sense of a group of pitchers they are somewhat unfamiliar with, including lefty Framber Valdez, who starts the opener.

Rays manager Kevin Cash said the potential to play seven straight days, coming after playing five straight before Saturday’s day off, is a considerable challenge especially given the intensity of the playoff games and pressure to make earlier moves. "If you’re in a regular-season schedule, the potential of 12 games in 13 days is a lot,'' he said. "That would be something that we would circle on if that was happening in May, July, September, whatever it was. And now we’re doing it in the postseason.''

‘Shark’ in Astros clothing

Though they haven’t met since last year’s AL Division Series, the Rays are plenty familiar with most of the Astros' veteran hitters, such as Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick. "That lineup is tough. It’s going to be a battle for sure because they don’t give in at all,'' Snell said. "Once they get on you. (it’s like) blood in the water. and they’re a bunch of sharks.'' Another interesting element to the matchup: Rays pitchers had the second-most strikeouts in the AL during the season while Astros hitters struck out the fewest times in the majors. Does that mean something has to give? "They don’t strike out,'' Cash said. "I’m not comparing the two but similar to … the Blue Jays, they don’t strike out, they’re just considerably more seasoned at this point in their careers. So we’re going to have to pitch really well.''

Snell game

Snell was in the bullpen for Friday’s game and warmed up during the ninth, but he said his workload was not that much different than if he had thrown his usual bullpen session two days before a start. "It worked out fine,'' he said. "I just played catch (before the game) and then I threw in the ninth inning. It was more of an aggressive bullpen, for sure, but I still feel really good, and I’ll be ready to be 100 percent ready to go against Houston (Sunday).''

Outcome bias

The result of Mike Brosseau’s at-bat against the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman on Friday immediately became one of the top moments in Rays history, the eighth-inning home run propelling them to the 2-1 win and a spot in the AL Championship Series. But how he got there was impressive as well, one of the most impressive at-bats overall, batting back from an 0-2 count, taking three pitches and fouling off four before driving the 100.2 mph fastball over the leftfield fence. "It was really remarkable,'' Cash said. "You just don’t have at-bats against a guy like that. You just don’t see it very often. … Hats off to Bross for finding a way to compete, foul off, fight off pitches, lay off pitches. To think that ... he started the at-bat 0-2. We’ve seen what Chapman does when he gets 0-2 on hitters. Usually it’s just overpowering at the top of the zone that people can’t lay off and they can’t hit. But for whatever reason, Bross was able to do it.''

About Friday night

Working around COVID-19 protocols and related league rules banning the traditional champagne showers, the Rays still had a pretty good time celebrating their win over the Yankees that sent them to the ALCS for the first time since 2008. The party moved from the clubhouse to the dugout to the field — with New York, New York and Empire State of Mind pointedly on the soundtrack — and eventually to the team hotel. "Everything about last night was amazing,'' centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. … Another highlight was Round 2 of a dance battle between outfielders Randy Arozarena and Brett Phillips, that Cash saw clips of on social media. "I’m thrilled to know they woke up and there were no injuries because it looked like some of the moves that they were performing somebody could have gotten hurt. Man, they’re some athletic guys.''

Quote of the day

"I’m just going to take more Aleve this series, I think.''

- Reliever Pete Fairbanks, on the impact of potentially playing seven straight days

Miscellany

The Astros moved down from Los Angeles, where they played their Division Series against Oakland, and into the resort hotel outside San Diego, where the Rays are staying (and the Yankees were) in Major League Baseball’s bubble plan. … The Astros worked out at Petco Park; the Rays took the day off, and some, including Snell, Fleming and Nate Lowe, played golf on the hotel course. … Tampa’s Lance McCullers Jr. is set to start Game 2 for the Astros. Another Tampa product, outfielder Kyle Tucker, will be in their lineup.