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The unlikely and unheralded pitchers who helped put the Rays in first place

John Romano | The entire bullpen makes less money than what the White Sox are paying Craig Kimbrel for two months of work. Yet they have saved Tampa Bay’s season.
JT Chargois is just one of the new faces to have joined the Rays bullpen after a rash of injuries this summer.
JT Chargois is just one of the new faces to have joined the Rays bullpen after a rash of injuries this summer. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — A lot of moments go unnoticed in the journey of a 162-game baseball season.

They’ll not be part of a season-ending retrospective, or some misty-eyed soliloquy in a champagne-soaked clubhouse. But they matter. Day by day, bit by bit.

The Rays are going through one of those moments right now.

With a half-dozen of Tampa Bay’s most trusted relievers currently on the injured list, the Rays have been forced to trade, promote and, presumably, scour the countryside for replacements this summer.

The result is an odd collection of one-time prospects, career minor-leaguers and 30-something relievers who have come together in a hastily constructed bullpen that lacks a clear-cut closer but seems to compensate with a fearless confidence.

And, by the way, that group of nobodies helped elevate the Rays to the top of the American League East during the weekend.

Of all the things the Rays front office does well — and there is a long list of items — the construction of a low-cost, high-production bullpen is, by far, the most remarkable.

They find pitchers who have been ignored, miscast and undervalued in other places and turn them into high-leverage machines in Tampa Bay. Just consider some of the relievers who began the week with the Rays:

D.J. Johnson, 31, has been released by three organizations, had two stints in independent leagues and spent time pitching in both Mexico and Japan. He made his Rays debut Monday night and pitched one perfect inning.

Louis Head, 31, has been released twice and spent parts of nine seasons in the minors before making his major-league debut with the Rays earlier this season. In his first 12 appearances, Head has a 1-0 record and a 1.50 ERA.

Ryan Sherriff reacts after getting a strikeout Sunday against the Red Sox.
Ryan Sherriff reacts after getting a strikeout Sunday against the Red Sox. [ SCOTT AUDETTE | Associated Press ]

Ryan Sherriff, 31, was drafted more than 10 years ago and has a grand total of 37 big-league appearances to show for it. He has worn the uniform of nine different minor-league teams. And with the tying run on base in the eighth inning of an ESPN prime-time game Sunday against Boston, Sherriff calmly came out of the bullpen and struck out Alex Verdugo to end the inning.

Chris Mazza, 31, has been released by two teams and waived by another. He was pitching with two different independent-league teams as recently as 2018. On Monday night, he rescued a tired bullpen by throwing three innings against the Mariners.

JT Chargois, 30, was waived in 2018, released in 2019 and ended up in Japan in 2020 when no one else was dialing his number. He reinvented himself in Seattle this spring and the Rays were impressed enough to trade Diego Castillo to get him last week.

Matt Wisler, 28, has been traded five times and waived once. His career ERA in 168 MLB appearances with the Braves, Padres, Reds, Giants, Mariners and Twins before getting to Tampa Bay was 5.00. In 20 games with the Rays he is 2-2 with a 1.93 ERA and one save.

Andrew Kittredge, 31, is currently the most accomplished member of the bullpen. He’s pitched parts of five seasons for the Rays and was a late addition to the All-Star team last month via manager Kevin Cash. He also had a minor-league contract for most of this spring and wasn’t added to the big-league roster until Nick Anderson went on the 60-day injured list.

Along with Drew Rasmussen, 25, this is your current AL East-leading bullpen. And while the Rays were making up four games in the standings in four days against the Yankees and Red Sox, this bullpen threw 14 innings and gave up only one run.

Add the salaries of all eight guys and it’s a fraction of what the Yankees are paying Aroldis Chapman. Heck, it’s less than what the White Sox are paying Craig Kimbrel just for the next two months, after acquiring him from the Cubs.

But each of these guys has a special skill. Whether it’s a wipeout slider, a knack for getting ground balls or just a high-octane fastball. They each do something well, and the Rays have learned to capitalize on those particular talents in small doses.

These guys are not prospects in the conventional sense. Probably not even in the most liberal use of the word.

In fact, a handful of them probably won’t be around if Tampa Bay is fortunate enough to reach the postseason. The Rays are counting on some combination of Anderson, Collin McHugh, Pete Fairbanks, J.P. Feyereisen, Ryan Thompson and Jeffrey Springs coming off the injured list and resuming their normal bullpen roles by the time October rolls around.

At least that’s the hope. For the Rays front office and their fans.

So if the Rays make it that far, just remember how they got there.

And who helped along the way.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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