Once again, Rays are changing baseball’s norms

John Romano | Kevin Cash may be unconventional with his bullpen, but the numbers say others might want to consider following Tampa Bay’s example.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Nick Anderson, shown in Game 7 of the ALCS against Houston, has carried a heavy workload this postseason. He has already faced 51 hitters in October, after facing 58 during the entire regular season. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Nick Anderson, shown in Game 7 of the ALCS against Houston, has carried a heavy workload this postseason. He has already faced 51 hitters in October, after facing 58 during the entire regular season. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) [ GREGORY BULL | AP ]
Published Oct. 23, 2020

ARLINGTON, Texas — There’s something special about the 27th out of a baseball game. We’ve been told that forever, and the Hall of Fame has plaques for guys who were known for nothing else but getting that final out in the game’s final inning.

But think about this:

The Rays won Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night because they got the 15th out of the game. Not to mention the 19th and the 24th outs, too.

All outs may have been created equal in Cy Young’s eyes back when pitchers were throwing 30 complete games a season, but not in this era, and certainly not in Tampa Bay’s universe. It’s a concept that has helped the Rays revolutionize pitching.

To put it simply:

The Rays are reinventing the role of closers. Just as they did a few years ago when their starting pitchers weren’t entering the game until the third inning, the Rays are now using their top relievers in unconventional ways. Maybe they come in for the fifth. Or the third. Or the fourth. Basically, the Rays are willing to pull out the big guns whenever they’re needed most.

So when the Dodgers put four consecutive batters on base and had the tying run come to the plate, manager Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell and put the game in the hands of his bullpen. It didn’t matter that Snell’s pitch count was relatively low or that the Rays led 5-2.

Cash rightfully concluded it was a tipping point in the game with two runners on base and Justin Turner holding a bat, and so he went with the team’s saves leader, Nick Anderson, in the fifth inning. Turner struck out.

“There’s really no margin of error with the teams we’re playing,” Cash said Thursday, an off-day, with Game 3 tonight. “They’re so good, they’re so talented, and if we’ve got opportunities to get Nick or Pete (Fairbanks) or Diego (Castillo) in the game, we’re going to do that.”

The Rays aren’t the first team in major-league history to shorten games with an elite bullpen. Thirty years ago, the Reds won a World Series with their “Nasty Boys” — Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers — pitching the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

The difference is the Rays are doing it even earlier in a game, and they’re using a larger, more eclectic group of relievers. They’re also doing it better. The Rays are 37-1 when leading after six innings. They’re 34-0 when leading after seven innings.

You saw evidence of it in the regular season. The Rays tied a major-league record with 12 relievers getting saves, though the season was less than half the normal length. But they have gone to even greater extremes in the postseason.

Anderson’s appearances in the regular season were fairly split among the seventh (four times), eighth (seven times), ninth (seven times) and 10th (one time) innings. In the postseason, his eight appearances have come in the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

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Basically, the Rays are looking to step on the throats of opponents as soon as they get a lead.

That could mean bringing in Anderson or Fairbanks when they need a strikeout, or Castillo to get a ground ball or Aaron Loup to pitch to a left-hander. Loup, for instance, relieved Fairbanks in the eighth in Game 2 to get Cody Bellinger with a runner on second. And though he had retired three consecutive hitters and was one out from the save, Loup was replaced by Castillo to get the right-handed Chris Taylor for the final out.

“We look at when and where and who is going to fit, and we try to match them up that way,” said bullpen coach Stan Boroski. "We don’t really care who gets the last out or the last three outs, as long as we get all 27 and have more runs than the other team, then everybody is happy.

“This group has really bought into that idea. They’re very unselfish that way. They just want to win.”

On paper, this may be the one place where the Rays have the advantage on the Dodgers. Los Angeles certainly has the more potent offense. And with Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, the Dodgers have an impressive one-two punch at the top of the rotation.

But depth and versatility in the bullpen give Tampa Bay a necessary edge. And the Rays are so keenly aware of this that they carefully dole out bullpen appearances. The top relievers are used only with the lead or occasionally when the score is tied. That means Josh Fleming, Ryan Thompson, John Curtiss, Shane McClanahan, Aaron Slegers and Ryan Sherriff have to eat up all the extraneous innings.

“Probably the biggest worry going through this postseason is continuing to do right by our relievers, knowing we’re probably going to push them more than they had been pushed in the regular season,” Cash said. "It’s constant and feedback whether it’s (pitching coach) Kyle (Snyder) and Stan and I with the front office, or Kyle and Stan with the pitchers, trying to gauge their temperature and how they’re feeling.

“The entire bullpen has just been awesome for us. Whatever role they’ve been asked to do, they’ve excelled.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow at @romano_tbtimes.