ST. PETERSBURG — Just when you think you have reached the end of the mayhem in The Godfather, there’s a final scene with Michael Corleone confronting Carlo Rizzo over the death of his brother.
“You have to answer for Santino,” Michael says.
For some reason, I kept thinking of that scene while watching the final, excruciating moments of Tampa Bay’s loss to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Division Series on Monday night. After all the work, the brilliant moves, the regular-season success, the hope and the promise, the 2021 season came down to this:
“You have to answer for Charlie Morton.”
The Rays will not be moving on to the American League Championship Series because their starting pitching faltered in the first round of the playoffs. And, regrettably, that was not an unforeseen circumstance.
From the time they declined to exercise Morton’s option and traded Blake Snell, the Rays have been chasing starting pitching. They signed Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and Chris Archer, but only one of them was still around in October, and none of them made a playoff start.
The Rays carefully groomed a tantalizingly talented rotation of Shane McClanahan, Luis Patino, Drew Rasmussen and Shane Baz, but the fact is that’s three rookies and another guy with 10 big-league starts on his resume. And it seemed to show in the postseason.
Between three starts and two relief appearances, those four pitchers had a 9.51 ERA in the series.
Did the Rays fear this might happen on baseball’s biggest stage?
“It was not fear, it was more excitement, looking forward for them to shine. Shane McClanahan couldn’t have shined any brighter in Game 1,” manager Kevin Cash said. “These guys, they did so many good things and will continue to do so many good things for us, and they will value these experiences. It’s pretty impressive what it says about all of them — the day (after) they came out, the next day, they all volunteered: ‘We’re ready to pitch. We’re ready to be in the bullpen.’ So that lack of experience didn’t alter them from wanting to get back on the mound.”
Still, the starting pitching was the difference between this postseason and the last. Against the Yankees in last season’s ALDS, the Rays got 20 innings from their starters/bulk pitchers in the first four games. Against the Red Sox, they got 10 innings.
That put a tremendous burden on the bullpen, which then had to cover 30 innings of work, including an extra-inning game, in five days. The relievers, for the most part, did a great job but were ultimately stretched too thin, getting rocked in Game 2 and giving up walk-off hits on consecutive nights in Games 3 and 4.
So was this a mistake by the Rays? Could they have gotten deeper into October with Morton or another similarly decorated veteran pitcher?
If all you cared about was the 2021 World Series, then the answer is yes. The Rays could have borrowed from future payrolls to pick up Morton’s $15 million option, or they could have traded prospects for more pitching help in July.
Had they chosen to make either one of those moves, you could make a pretty good case that they’d be getting ready for another game today.
But because they cannot simply spend their way out of mistakes the way some larger-market teams do, the Rays are constantly hedging their bets for the future. And that means they never push all of their chips into one pot.
“That’s something that we’re always balancing, how to strike the right balance between relying on young players that have limited histories and surrounding them with the right veterans and the right talent,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “Is it better to push a little heavier into one year and little less into another year? Those are the kinds of questions we talk about a lot.
“But I do feel really good about the balance that we struck this year. I mean, we didn’t win 100 games by accident, you know, and I do believe we saw a group with ascending talent and we went out and got Nelson Cruz even before the deadline.”
At the time of the deadline, the Rays felt their greatest need was more right-handed hitting and a bigger thumper in the middle of the order. As it turns out, they finished second in the majors in runs scored while setting a team record. You can rightfully point out that Brandon Lowe went missing in the playoffs, and Cruz and Mike Zunino were mostly silent, but the Rays did not lose because of offense.
They scored 5, 6, 4 and 5 runs in the four games. That’s usually enough to win in the playoffs. In fact, other than Tampa Bay, teams that scored four or more runs were 9-2 in the first week of the playoffs. The Rays were 1-3.
Tampa Bay’s calling card has always been run prevention. They discovered years ago that it was more economical to invest in run prevention — in pitching and defense — than in spending money on sluggers at every position.
This year, they spent more money than ever on a designated hitter but reduced expenditures on the rotation because they had so many young arms on the horizon. For six months, the plan worked. Then, in five days in October, it all fell apart.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.