ST. PETERSBURG — As prepared and assured as the Rays were heading into the playoffs with their American League-best 100 wins, it seemed they were hiding an ugly truth.
Team officials insisted they had full confidence in their rebuilt bullpen despite some obvious signs of concern between inexperience, inconsistency and ineffectiveness.
Friday, that became an issue in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. The Rays lost an early lead, lost the game 14-6 and lost the momentum from their win in Thursday’s opener, with Games 3 and 4 in the best-of-five series in Boston on Sunday and Monday.
“They kind of put it to us (Friday),” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
The Rays led 5-3, primarily due to Jordan Luplow’s first-inning grand slam, when rookie Shane Baz was pulled one out into the third inning after a shaky postseason debut and fourth big-league outing. But by the end of the long night, five other Rays allowed 11 runs, including four home runs, disappointing a Tropicana Field crowd of 37,616 — the largest in five years — that had been roaring earlier in the game.
Most damaging was the work by two of the relievers the Rays are counting on most, Collin McHugh and Matt Wisler.
McHugh, arguably the Rays’ most dependable reliever, had allowed only three home runs during the season, facing 247 batters over 37 games. Friday, he gave up two in a seven-batter span, allowing the Red Sox to get even.
One was to Alex Verdugo, the first batter McHugh faced in the third. The other was to Enrique Hernandez leading off the fifth.
“They took advantage of mistakes,” McHugh said. “I was talking to (catcher Mike Zunino) on the way over here and in between innings, just make a mistake in the playoffs, and a lot of them you get away with.
“We didn’t get away with a lot of them (Friday), and that’s hats off to them. They put good swings on the ball, but we have to execute better as a staff. I have to execute better personally. And I feel confident in our ability to do so.”
Cash acknowledged it was surprising to see McHugh falter: “Any time he is giving up runs — he has been so good all season long, you get into that consistency of he is just going to go in and induce weak contact and get his strikeouts. But the Red Sox had other plans.”
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With the game tied and one on in the fifth, Cash lifted McHugh and made a somewhat curious choice to use Wisler for his postseason debut.
The 29-year-old had missed most of the last six weeks due to right middle finger inflammation before returning to pitch twice in the final four days of the season, and the Rays weren’t sure he would even be on the ALDS roster until the Thursday morning deadline.
He allowed a single to Xander Bogaerts, got Verdugo on a line out, then allowed a three-run homer to J.D. Martinez — who wasn’t declared a go for the lineup until about an hour before first pitch due to a sore right ankle that kept him out of Thursday’s opener and went 4-for-5.
“(Wisler) has been awesome for us this year,” Cash said. “He just left some breaking balls up. Every one that was hit was either above the zone or right at the top of the zone, and ideally that’s not where you are throwing breaking balls to that grouping of hitters that he faced. And they made us pay for it.”
As if 8-5 wasn’t bad enough, the Sox kept adding on, scoring six runs in the final three innings off Michael Wacha. By the time they were done swinging, the Rays had allowed a season-high 20 hits.
Also of note was that the Rays let the lead get away without using either of their more trusted high-leverage relievers, Pete Fairbanks and Andrew Kittredge.
“After Wisler came in the game, J.D. hit the three-run homer, just felt like we needed to do what we can to preserve our guys,”'z Cash said. “We should be in a pretty good spot, even though ‘Wach’ gave up some runs, but we should be in a good spot to cover a big Game 3.”
With the series tied and only one starter available for the next two games, the Rays face a big decision on whether to use Drew Rasmussen on Sunday and a bullpen ensemble (with Luis Patino playing a big role) in what could be an elimination game, or the other way around.
“Fortunately, we have 24 hours to talk through it,” Cash said.
That, and other things.
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