After his team locked up yet another one-run win by beating the Houston Astros 2-1 in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash wouldn’t attribute that success to anything but bullpen depth.
“Our analytical guys might think they’re lucky or fluky, but, no, I don’t think that,” Cash said after the Rays improved to 16-5 in one-run games this season, including the playoffs.
That .762 winning percentage in such contests is the best of any team in baseball history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Is it magic? Is it pixie dust? Is it what in Vegas they call a heater? Or is it simply that the Rays have baseball’s best and deepest bullpen, one good enough to hold the narrowest of leads against baseball’s elite offenses? Based on Sunday’s win, that last theory looks the most plausible.
After the Rays overcame an early 1-0 deficit, Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell exited the game having held the Astros to that one run over five innings, getting the hook because he had burned through 105 pitches.
It was not an unfamiliar development for the Rays. Snell has not completed six innings in a single contest all season, and as a team, Tampa Bay has gotten more innings from its relievers than its rotation over the course of the campaign. The formula has worked, as evidenced by the Rays’ presence in the ALCS.
“We’re here because of all that depth,” Cash said.
A few hours before the game, Cash conceded that “efficiency” from his starters would be an important factor this week. With all the games unfolding at neutral-site Petco Park in San Diego and no travel days, the possibility of seven games over seven days loomed.
Complicating matters further was the emotional five-game divisional series the Rays just completed late Friday night, when they knocked off the rival New York Yankees 2-1 in Game 5. Cash got just 2 1/3 1/3 innings from starter Tyler Glasnow in that game, but he got 2 2/3 innings from relief ace Nick Anderson, two innings from Peter Fairbanks and two innings from Diego Castillo. Among that trio of his top-tier relievers, only Castillo was available on Sunday night.
Yet one thing that sets the Rays’ bullpen apart is that the proficiency of their top relievers is not as separated from the rest of the relief staff as it tends to be on other teams. Tampa Bay simply has lots and lots of effective relievers.
“That diversity really helps us,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “There is plenty of power there. There is plenty of plus breaking stuff. There are just so many options to go to.”
That was on display Sunday. With Anderson and Fairbanks down, John Curtiss worked a scoreless sixth. Slidering and sinkerballing Ryan Thompson did the same in the seventh. Lefty Aaron Loup plunked a hitter and struggled to locate, but Castillo entered to get the last five outs just 48 hours after closing out the win over the Yankees. It was the first time he had ever saved a game by recording more than three outs.
“It sums up his whole year,” Zunino said. “He’s been throwing a lot in some big situations for us.”
The superlative statistics about the Tampa Bay bullpen just keep piling up. The Rays improved to 33-0 this season when leading after seven innings. They have now won 73 straight games when leading in the eighth inning or later, the longest active streak in baseball. Rays relievers have inherited 16 runners when entering games during this postseason. None of them have scored.
“It’s impressive,” Cash said. “That’s what you want as a staff. You certainly don’t want the guys down there who don’t want the ball. We’re going to keep hoping they want it.”
Of course, that was just Game 1. Game 2 is an early start on Monday, then Game 3 is Tuesday and so on. That’s the reality of MLB’s first foray into bubble baseball. It’s why rosters were expanded to 28 players for the playoffs this year. Both the Astros and the Rays are carrying 14 pitchers on their ALCS rosters in hopes of successfully navigating the week.
But if there is one team built to adapt to baseball’s most unusual postseason, it’s the Rays, arguably baseball’s most unusual — and progressive — franchise. When asked if the analytics-savvy Rays have an ineffable ability of simply knowing how to win, Cash said, surprisingly, that they do.
“I feel we have it,” Cash said. “The guys in our clubhouse feel we have it. The one thing you learn about our club over 60 or 162 [games], we’re in a lot of tight ballgames. And tight ballgames, you’ve got to teach yourself how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean. There’s no margin for error and I think our guys take that approach every single night when they take the field.”
As good and deep as the Rays’ bullpen is, someone still has to put the right pitcher in the right situation at the right time. That person for the Rays is Cash. That fact, as much as anything, might explain why Tampa Bay continues to befuddle the probabilities of one-run success.
“It can’t go overlooked the timing of the moves,” Zunino said. “Cashie is on top of it. It goes without saying why I think he’s the best manager in the game.”