ST. PETERSBURG — For six innings, maybe seven, the manager was a dope.
That’s what you were thinking, right? Kevin Cash was blowing a Sunday afternoon game before a national streaming audience on Peacock and a mostly packed Tropicana Field.
He left Josh Fleming on the mound after two homers in the second, one in the fifth and two more in the sixth. Fleming lost the lead for the Rays three times on the afternoon.
Was Cash trying to lose? Had he lost his mind?
Those aren’t unreasonable questions when you’ve invested your afternoon, or your wallet, in how the Rays performed in the series finale against the Dodgers.
So here’s your explanation:
Of course Cash wanted to win that game. But he wants to win the World Series even more. And that meant he was going to manage with one eye on the scoreboard and another eye on the long-term health and effectiveness of the bullpen.
“Those (games) really eat him up because he wants to win as much as anybody,” said general manager Peter Bendix. “We’re in the most difficult division in all of sports, and we really want to win the division, but we also have bigger aspirations beyond that. And to do that, we have to keep our pitchers healthy, keep our whole team fresh and know that what really counts is at the end of the season.”
The good news is the Rays held on to beat the Dodgers 11-10, but that’s not necessarily the moral of the story.
The Rays went into the game committed to the idea that relievers Colin Poche, Jake Diekman and Kevin Kelly were unavailable. Poche and Kelly had pitched in four of the past five games, and Diekman had thrown in three consecutive games. One other reliever, Joe LaSorsa, was in a major-league uniform for the first time, and another, Calvin Faucher, had pitched two of the last three days.
That left just a few available relievers, and that meant preparing, cajoling and praying that Fleming could get through six innings.
“It’s playing the game of chess,” said pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “(Sunday), we had to commit to it. I think I made four mound visits with Josh and only had one left. We did what we could to make it work, to give ourselves the opportunity to score one more run than the Dodgers, and that’s what happened.
“That’s what Cash is great at.”
It’s the same mindset Cash used in a game against Toronto last week. After Taj Bradley and Zack Burdi got lit up in the first five innings, Cash used position players to pitch the final two innings to preserve his bullpen. It meant the Rays were humiliated 20-1 in the game.
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It also helped the Rays win three of the four games in the series, despite being outscored 30-20.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions in the short term that are in the best interest of the team in the long term,” Bendix said. “Even though every game is very important, sometimes that means not necessarily managing every game like it’s Game 7 of the World Series.”
Fleming knew the situation Sunday. Knew Cash was depending on him. And while it might have been better for his ERA and psyche to come out earlier, he was willing to wear that ugliness to protect the bullpen.
“It’s a difficult situation; you obviously don’t want to give up 10 runs and 12 hits,” Fleming said. “I got a lot of encouragement from teammates saying that it helped to save the bullpen, so that does make me feel a little better. But, yeah, days like (Sunday) are unfortunately part of the game.”
It’s not just isolated to the bullpen. Cash manages his rotation with the idea that it’s more important for his starters to be fresh in October than to throw 200 innings in the regular season.
In other words, it’s never about one game. It’s also about what it took to play the last three games, and what it will take to win the next three games.
That’s why, on the heels of an off day earlier this month, Cash was willing to use seven pitchers in a 4-1 win. But with a tired bullpen, he used only three pitchers Sunday in a game in which they gave up 10 runs.
How hard was it for him to fight the temptation to bail out Fleming and go to his bullpen earlier?
“Excruciating,” Cash said.
After all that, Cash had the bullpen set up the way he wanted, with Jalen Beeks in the seventh, Jason Adam in the eighth and Pete Fairbanks in the ninth.
And then Fairbanks felt something wrong in his hip while warming up and Cash was forced to ask Adam to throw two innings for the first time in nearly three years.
More than 30 minutes later, Fairbanks had yet to return to his locker, and the bus to the airport for the trip to Chicago was 10 minutes from departing.
“If he’s (on the injured list),” Cash said, “then we’re going to get another pitcher.”
It’s a long season. You gotta manage with that in mind.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.
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