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A month from now, these anonymous Rays could make history

John Romano | No one in the bullpen has as many as 10 saves, but collectively Tampa Bay’s relievers will be crucial in the playoffs.
Rays relievers, from left, Andrew Kittredge, Pete Fairbanks, center, and Collin McHugh, right.
Rays relievers, from left, Andrew Kittredge, Pete Fairbanks, center, and Collin McHugh, right. [ IVY CEBALLO, ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Oct. 7
Updated Oct. 7

ST. PETERSBURG — If you had to pick one player who will have the biggest effect on this postseason for the Rays, who would it be?

Game 1 starter Shane McClanahan would be a good choice. He’s the closest thing Tampa Bay has to an ace, and history tells us October is made for big-game pitchers. From Madison Bumgarner to Jack Morris to Bob Gibson, the Baseball Almanac is filled with iconic starting pitchers.

Wander Franco is another wise selection. He is barely scratching the surface of the player he will soon become, but Franco already has better at-bats than most of Major League Baseball’s hitters. You could make a case for Brandon Lowe, Nelson Cruz and Randy Arozarena, too.

As for me, I’m picking the closer.

All nine of them.

Yes, I suppose that’s cheating. After all, I did say one player. But the larger point is that this largely anonymous group of relievers will play an outsized role in October’s fortunes in Tampa Bay. Presumably more than any other bullpen in the postseason.

“Historically speaking, the teams that make the run all the way through, almost all of them are because of big outs in big moments or big hits in big moments,” said Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander. “That’s a long-winded way of saying I wouldn’t go so far as to say the bullpen is (the most important group) because of the well-roundedness of this team, but they can certainly make life a lot easier.”

The list of innovations championed by Tampa Bay in recent years is long and impressive, but none may be as dramatic as the recasting of the modern bullpen. It started when Andrew Friedman took over as general manager and decided closer was one area where the Rays could save money because under-utilized relievers were always available on the open market.

And so, over the last 17 seasons, the Rays have been led in saves by 15 different relievers.

Neander and his crew have taken the strategy even farther. Where middle and long relievers were once washed-up starters on fumes, the Rays have turned those finals seats in the bullpen into valuable roster spots.

The Rays have looked for pitchers with unique talents (sinkerball pitchers who can get ground balls or power pitchers who can deliver a strikeout on cue) and have given them an opportunity to pitch in high-leverage situations.

The result is bullpens that have broken records and norms. The Rays set a new MLB standard this season when 14 different relievers got saves. The old record was also held by Tampa Bay.

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It got a lot less fanfare, but Rays relievers also set an MLB record with 58 wins this season. The Rays broke that same record in 2018 (55 wins) and 2019 (56 wins), although to be fair, bulk relievers have accounted for a lot of that. No other franchise has ever topped 50 wins by relievers.

“They have stepped up magnificently,” said bullpen coach Stan Boroski. “They’ve had enough experience in the regular season in those leverage situations that they’re all ready to go right now. They want the ball. They’re young, they’re hungry and they’re good.”

They are also on the clock. Because the Rays do not like to overburden their starters — and do not often want them facing hitters for a third time through the order — the relievers are usually in the game well before the seventh-inning stretch. Rays starters threw six innings or more in only 45 games this season. Only three other teams — Minnesota, Baltimore and Pittsburgh — had fewer.

Rays relievers (including openers and excluding bulk pitchers) threw slightly more than four innings a night last postseason. With a younger crew of starting pitchers, it’s conceivable that Tampa Bay will ask even more of its bullpen in 2021.

“To a man, whatever role they’ve been asked to pitch, they have found ways to succeed,” manager Kevin Cash said. “It has been pitch the fifth (inning) one night, the next night you’re closing out the ninth, then you got back to the fifth, and then you’re pitching the 11th in a tie ballgame. They’ve all experienced the highest-leverage situation, they’ve all experienced some of the low-leverage.

“So you’d like to think they have positioned themselves really well to be prepared for whatever is asked of them starting (Thursday).”

Of course, some of the closer-by-committee was caused more by circumstance than design this season. The Rays had a ton of injuries and had to run a shuttle between Triple-A Durham and Tampa Bay to keep pitchers fresh.

And there’s still some questions about the health and/or effectiveness of guys like Nick Anderson, Matt Wisler, David Robertson and Pete Fairbanks. The Rays ended up with six blown saves in September, which would be more concerning if they didn’t have such a big division lead.

“I think the body of work that this pen has put together is pretty good,” Neander said. “Collectively, we have a lot of confidence in the group and how everything will sort out on any given night.”

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

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