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Rays navigate pain and suffering with slew of pitcher injuries

With 15 pitchers on the injured list, team officials say they don’t really know the root cause.
Pete Fairbanks, second from right, leaves the game with assistant athletic trainer Mark Vinson after getting injured during the 10th inning of a July 28 game against the Yankees.
Pete Fairbanks, second from right, leaves the game with assistant athletic trainer Mark Vinson after getting injured during the 10th inning of a July 28 game against the Yankees. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Aug. 3
Updated Aug. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Kevin Cash called reliever DJ Johnson on Saturday morning to welcome him to the organization following Friday’s trade from Cleveland and to discuss the Rays’ initial decision to assign him to Triple-A Durham.

“I said, ‘Believe me, the way things are going, I’ll see you soon,’ ” Cash relayed Sunday afternoon. “I saw him soon. Just saw him.”

Johnson was summoned to replace the latest injured Rays pitcher, as lefty Jeffrey Springs sprained his right knee chasing a bunt in Saturday’s game.

Though Springs’ injury was something of a freak occurrence, he became the 15th Rays pitcher currently sidelined — a team record. (And that’s not counting Brendan McKay, who is on option to the minors as he rehabs from 2020 shoulder surgery.)

Of the other 14, 11 are out with arm issues, eight of which were sustained from spring training on.

That the Rays went into play Tuesday with the best overall ERA (3.56) and bullpen ERA (3.06) in the American League was a salute to the depth they accrued and acquired to overcome the injuries.

“It’s just like, ‘Next guy up, right?,’ ” said Collin McHugh, one of the injured relievers. “The front office has done a great job of bringing guys in all year that are able to come in and help right away.”

Consider it this way: Of the 13 pitchers active for Tuesday’s game, only four — Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Sherriff, Michael Wacha and Ryan Yarbrough — were on the Rays’ opening day roster.

Or this way: Of the eight pitchers in bullpen Tuesday, only Sherriff was even on the Rays’ 40-man roster when spring training opened.

Pitching coach Kyle Snyder admits he's had some sleepless nights this season with the arm injuries piling up.
Pitching coach Kyle Snyder admits he's had some sleepless nights this season with the arm injuries piling up. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

But the success isn’t much of a salve for the pain of seeing so many pitchers go down, with five others serving previous injured list stints. The overall group includes their top high-leverage reliever, Nick Anderson (who they are hoping will make a late-season return), and top starter, Tyler Glasnow (who is expected to soon undergo Tommy John surgery that likely will sideline him until 2023).

“Injuries, man, I’m beyond frustrated,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “When you invest as much as we do with each of these guys, 12 hours out of every day, all offseason, et cetera. When they get hurt, and can’t continue to perform, it’s always going to have a pretty dramatic impact on me.”

The injuries have piled up without any clear reason or common thread, beyond the obvious idea that the return to a full 162-game schedule — after the 2020 pandemic dysfunction of the spring training pause, then the accelerated preparation for the abbreviated season — might have consequences.

Yes, the Rays use their relievers early and often, but they also monitor workloads and usage closely.

“There’s always going to be more that we don’t know than we do know, so I’m going to stick to that,” Snyder said. “We’re in an unprecedented time. Last year we were rushed. Pitching is dangerous on the arm. We use our bullpen pretty heavily; most of those injuries have occurred there.

“I don’t know (why). ... I’ve had some sleepless nights. So long as I assume the role that I’m in, and I’m wired the way that I am, that’s how it’s going to be.”

The impact of a full season after playing just 60 games last year was a concern once the 2021 plans were set, as teams contemplated ways to adjust everything from spring training workout routines to regular-season usage plans, with some teams trying six-man rotations.

“I think that pretty consistent with what we thought coming into the season and were talking about in spring training, pitcher workload was going to be a big topic,” Cash said. “Unfortunately I feel like we’re talking about it too much.”

Collin McHugh thinks the delayed start to the 2020 season, and abbreviated schedule, then return to a normal 2021 slate likely is to blame for pitching injuries throughout the league.
Collin McHugh thinks the delayed start to the 2020 season, and abbreviated schedule, then return to a normal 2021 slate likely is to blame for pitching injuries throughout the league. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

McHugh, a 34-year-old veteran of 10 seasons and five teams, said that seems to be the likely reason as many teams across the majors are having similar injury issues mount.

“I think everybody can kind of look at it and see that this is a different beast this year than it was last year, for a lot of different reasons,” McHugh said. “So kind of getting back into the swing of a 162-game season, which is an insane amount of games to play when you think of it. … You’re going to have bumps and bruises along the way in any given season.

“And then a season like this, some guys are going to be better off for the extra rest from last year, some guys are going to be struggling to kind of get their sea legs again for 162 games and that pace. So we’ve seen it across the league this year, we’re really no different than a lot of other teams.”

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