The Tampa Bay Rays were built for this: incessant bullpen games and the use of an opener in this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs.
Then there’s the postseason schedule in the Petco Park bubble, with seven American League Championship Series games in seven days, followed by a two-day break, the World Series and a possible seven more games in nine days. That will come on top of five games in five days in the AL Division Series.
With more than 100 pitching injuries during the regular season, the entire combination has taxed the pitching staffs of the final four participants.
From the most recent successful Houston teams, the Astros are missing star pitchers Justin Verlander, out after Tommy John surgery; Gerrit Cole, who signed with the Yankees, and Charlie Morton, now with the Rays. Their closer, Roberto Osuna, has an elbow injury.
Astros manager Dusty Baker has never had to cope with anything like this in his previous four tours as a big-league skipper where his starting rotations and bullpens were deep.
“I have no veteran bullpen presence,” Baker said Thursday night, his club having dodged elimination with a 4-3 victory over the Rays in Game 5 of the ALCS. “I’ve got a bunch of kids who had to learn on the job.”
Still, the Astros survived to play at least another day. Baker’s crew had basically run out of pitching when Carlos Correa hit a walk-off homer against hard-throwing Nick Anderson in the bottom of the ninth inning that drew Houston within 3-2 of the Rays.
Tampa Bay had led the best-of-seven series, 3-0, and Game 6 is Friday back at Petco Park, with a possible Game 7 Saturday. To Baker’s point, the Astros used seven pitchers, the first five of them rookies. The Rays used only four. Correa had told Baker he would walk it off. Baker told him to “go ahead,” please, because he knew what was left in the ‘pen.
“They had length on us,” Baker said, acknowledging the bullpen deficit had the game gone into extra innings. “They had big time length on us. You have nightmares of going 15 innings or something.”
The Rays still had their big three left in the bullpen: Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo and Ryan Thompson. Meanwhile, Baker’s situation grew so desperate he had to warmup Framber Valdez, the prospective Game 6 starter.
“Thank god we didn’t have to use Framber,” Baker said. “Tomorrow is huge. We’re one step closer to getting over that mountain.”
The Ray’s approach to pitching, including the innovative use of an opener, in which a short-inning reliever or bullpen closer starts the game, was born out of financial necessity. With a group of no-name players and an average age of 28, they are one game away from eliminating three teams this postseason with a combined prorated player payroll for the 60-game COVID-abbreviated season of $246.4 million.
That includes the New York Yankees at $109.4 million, the Astros at $82.5 million, and the Toronto Blue Jays at $54.5 million.
The Rays, at a 29th in MLB $29.9 million, could be the lowest-paid team to play in the World Series during the current millennium.
“I’ll take it,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said.
The veteran right-hander Morton is their top paid starter at a prorated $5.56 million, followed by Blake Snell at $3.2 million, and Tyler Glasnow at $759,259.
Most of the remainder of the pitching staff and 17 players on the 28-man ALCS roster earned less than $215,000.
The top two paid pitchers are Houston’s starters for the final two games of the series: Snell vs. Valdez in Game 6, Morton vs. Lance McCullers Jr. in Game 7.
When the World Series starts Tuesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex., against either the Atlanta Braves or the Los Angeles Dodgers, both the Rays and Astros will be hurting again for starting pitching in the first two games.
“You can’t even think about it,” Baker said. “You have to do the best with what you have.”
The Rays have been trading away name homegrown players for a more than a decade, since they lost in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series.
The opener and bullpen game didn’t evolve out of some new-age analytic strategy, it happened because of a dearth of starters after the trade of Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the July 31, 2018, trade deadline.
Kevin Cash, who took over as manager in 2015 when Joe Maddon opted out of his contract and signed with the Chicago Cubs, has lived through a lot of the pitching changes, including Matt Moore to the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 1, 2016.
Preceding his tenure was Matt Garza to the Cubs in 2011, and David Price to the Detroit Tigers and Jeremy Hellickson to the Arizona Diamondbacks, both in 2014. When Andrew Freeman left Tampa Bay baseball ops to run the Dodgers, a disgruntled Maddon used a clause in his contract tied to Freeman to also leave.
But Cash says he takes no credit for the opener strategy. Consequently, Rays baseball ops try to develop or obtain young pitchers who throw hard and give opponents as many different looks as possible. When they become too costly those pitchers are traded.
“I definitely didn’t create it,” Cash said. “There were a lot of people who talked about it, I think, for seasons before it was actually put in place. And so many people had a role in that. Ultimately, it came down to some guys buying into it on the pitching side of it.”
Now, like Thursday at Petco, the Rays find themselves the victims of their own invention.
Baker, a traditionist at heart with 23 years of experience in mostly the old school of managing, had no choice except to use his opener, Luis Garcia, for two innings and six other pitchers each for an inning, plus a few batters more.
Cash, better than anyone, understands the dilemma.
“What we’ve learned from it when teams do it against us, it presents its challenges,” he said. “There’s nothing predictable in the game. You can get matchups that you want earlier in the game as opposed to later in the game. I’m not sure what they’re going to do, so lineup-wise we stagger as many right-left looks as possible to avoid getting matchups we don’t like.”
Until Correa teed off on Anderson to end the game in the ninth, of course.