CHICAGO — The Rays have been through this before.
Not just tied to Pete Fairbanks’ injury — though that is a bit of a common thread — but being forced to rely on relievers that have to step up to higher-leverage roles as others step in to keep their bullpen viable and their record positive.
“Next man up” has become as much of a motto as the team’s official mission statement “to energize the community through the magic of Rays baseball.”
For the second time in little more than a month they have to scramble as Fairbanks will be out until at least mid-June due to left hip inflammation.
“It is ‘next man up,’ that is the mentality,” said reliever Jason Adam. “We’re obviously going to miss Pete. He is an elite, elite bullpen arm. ...
“So it adds to the workload. It’s definitely tough. But we also have shown, and the Rays in general have shown, the ability to take arms that no one really expects and turn them into back of the bullpen-type arms. So we have all the confidence in the world that will be fine. And that we’ll be able to roll.”
They’ll try to do so by elevating Adam into the de facto closer’s role, where he will be called on to get the final three outs, or at times to deal with the most threatening opposing hitters, potentially in the eighth inning.
Rookie right-hander Kevin Kelly and lefty Colin Poche seem likely to serve as the set-up men, handling the next highest-leverage situations. Lefty Jalen Beeks likely will shift from occasional opener duty to later-inning relief work. And right-hander Shawn Armstrong, out since spring with a neck issue, could be activated by this weekend in Boston and join him in a similar role.
“Look, we’re not going to replace Pete,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s really, really good. What he does in the back end of the bullpen when he’s right and healthy is pretty special. But we feel like we do have some guys that can provide some help.”
The Rays felt similarly confident in late April when Fairbanks was first unavailable for a couple games in a then-chillier Chicago due to a recurrence of symptoms of Raynaud’s syndrome (which affects blood flow to his fingers), then inflammation at the wrist end of his forearm.
But that didn’t work out so well — relative to their 22-5 start — as they went 9-6 in that stretch and repeatedly let late leads get away.
Most painful? On April 30 at the White Sox, they led 9-5 in the ninth and lost 12-9. At home against the Yankees on May 6, they were up 2-0- in the eighth and lost 3-2. At Yankee Stadium on May 12-13, they turned 5-4 eighth-inning lead into a 6-5 loss and the next afternoon let a 6-4 advantage in the sixth evolve to a 9-8 defeat.
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(Plus in Fairbanks’ first game back, May 17 at the Mets, they allowed game-tying homers in the seventh and eighth innings before he gave up a walkoff blast in the ninth.)
And there were several other scares along the way, where games with leads that seemed comfortable became high stress for the pitchers and the staff.
The blown leads were somewhat of a team effort, which raised some questions about the bullpen’s reliability and depth even before Fairbanks got hurt again.
But they feel confident they are better equipped to navigate his absence this time.
One benefit now, pitching coach Kyle Snyder said, is that some of the relievers, especially Kelly, now have experience in higher-leverage roles, and the staff also has more familiarity with how to best use them.
“I definitely do,” Snyder said. “I have confidence that if we do what we’re supposed to do, and that’s control the count and use our stuff in the zone before two strikes, that we’re going to be able to nail down wins and be able to deal with Pete’s absence for the next couple of weeks.”
Adam will be most key, having converted 15 of 22 saves since joining the Rays last season, and said he is up for whatever is asked, such as Sunday when he went back out for a second inning when Fairbanks hurt his hip warming up and sealed a win against the Dodgers.
“We’ve seen Jason in the ninth-inning role, in that high-leverage role,” general manager Peter Bendix said. “What he did (Sunday), pitching two innings unexpectedly and having maybe his best stuff of the year, and really being dominant against one of the best lineups that he’s going to face, was awesome. His competitiveness is through the roof. We have full confidence in him in high-leverage spots. And then other guys are going to have to step up kind of behind him.”
The Rays feel Kelly, who this time last year was being promoted from Double A to Triple A with Cleveland, is better for the experience he has gotten. “You see him kind of learning on the fly, so to speak,” Bendix said. “He has been really impressive. We will continue to lean on him. He’s really tough to hit. He’s a tough at-bat.”
And that Poche, after some early-season struggles and a tough outing in Saturday’s loss, is trending well. “Colin has been the good version of himself recently, that pitcher that we know he can be,” Bendix said. “When he’s throwing strikes, when he’s locating, he’s really hard to hit. He can get lefties out and righties out.”
Help is available
There are some other reasons for hope in stabilizing the bullpen over the shorter and longer term.
With Tyler Glasnow taking a spot in the rotation, and eliminating an opener/bulk-inning pitcher day, there should be fewer innings for relievers to cover. And as a direct result, Beeks should be freed up for later-inning work. Lefty Jake Diekman, signed earlier this month after being released by the White Sox, has shown promise and may also get more responsibility.
Armstrong was a big help last season, in multi-inning and occasional high-leverage work. Zack Littell, a waiver claim from Boston who did some good things before a shoulder issues, should be ready to return in early June. And there could be big help coming in late July/early August as All-Star Andrew Kittredge completes his rehab from Tommy John elbow surgery (he has started throwing bullpen sessions and feels good).
If the Rays need more options, they have Ryan Thompson, Yonny Chirinos, Cooper Criswell and struggling Luis Patino at Triple A. Plus, as non-contending teams get into June, they will be more open to trading relievers.
And Cash has another solution in mind as well:
“If we can continue scoring runs at the clip we are right now, that that’ll help, too.”
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