October 4, 2023

La Ronge Northerner

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Rosenthal: Momentum is important in the American League race and the Rays provide it

Rosenthal: Momentum is important in the American League race and the Rays provide it

BALTIMORE — For a postgame analysis of the Tampa Bay Rays’ dirty bullpen, we turn to one of them, left-hander Jake Diekmann.

Colin Bucci: “Twenty inches holds his fireplace.”

Sean Armstrong: “Nine different courts.”

Robert Stevenson: “97 whenever he wants.”

Pete Fairbanks: “The psycho who throws 100.”

Well, that’s one way to sum it up. Here’s another: Twelve leads and twelve downs on seven hits to secure the Rays’ biggest win of the season, a 4-3 win over the Orioles in the first of four games between the top two teams in the American League.

The Orioles still hold a one-game advantage in the AL East, needing just one win in the series to win the tiebreaker. But the Rays’ bullpen, which has not allowed an earned run in 34 straight innings, gives them an edge over the Orioles, and probably every other AL contender as well.

Keep in mind that the Orioles’ bullpen is still very good even without star closer Felix Bautista, who may be out for the season with a partially torn MCL. The team is second in the majors to the Yankees in bullpen ERA, including an impressive mark of 3.13 since losing Bautista on August 25. But this is the time of year when momentum matters. The Rays pen has not allowed an earned run in 11 days.

Before Thursday night’s game, Rays manager Kevin Cash was concerned about needing to use Bucci for 20 pitches, Armstrong for 15 pitches and Stephenson for three pitches to secure a 5-4 win over the Twins the day before. Cash said he and other team officials spent nearly two weeks talking about keeping their bullpen fresh for the Baltimore Series. However, the relievers themselves seem less concerned. “They know what’s at stake now,” Cash said. “The messages they’ve been sending to me and more (pitch coach) Kyle (Snyder) is that they’re ready to go.”

Colin Bucci, who will be here on August 1, has a number of wins as have Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Nola. (Brad Penner/USA Today)

So left-hander Poche was the first option to replace Rays right fielder, Aaron Civale, with the score tied 3-3 in the sixth inning. Poche struck out two runs in a perfect inning, and after Luke Raley’s home run gave the Rays the lead in the seventh inning, he wound up with his 12th win.

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Most observers of the game no longer consider victories to be particularly meaningful. Poche described his total as “just an interesting, weird little statistic,” acknowledging that it is a product of the Rays playing too many close games, an offense prone to rallying in the late innings and the quality of the relievers behind him.

However, Pucci now has as many wins as Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Nola, among others, not to mention three more wins than any reliever. His manager and colleagues find the whole thing funny.

“Is he right for the Cy Young?” Cracked cash.

Fairbanks was asked if the Rays honored Poche as a Player of the Game during the team meeting they hold after every win. “We’ve put in place a new policy of MVP. That’s if you win, you’re Player of the Game,” Fairbanks said. “With Poche wanting to catch up with the league leaders.” American, that was a fair choice.

Armstrong followed Poche with a perfect seventh, lowering his season ERA to 0.77. It was Armstrong’s 13th straight appearance without allowing an earned run. He extended his homeless streak to 38 2/3 innings. He was then replaced by Stevenson, a reliever who might be more exciting.

The Rays acquired Stephenson from the Pirates on June 2 for infielder Alika Williams, whom they drafted 37th overall in 2020. Stephenson was surprised by the deal, saying with a smile: “I didn’t know you could trade that early.” But Ray officials thought Stevenson might be better than any reliever they could add at the deadline, and it turns out they were right.

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Stevenson has thrown 12 straight scoreless innings since Aug. 9, allowing just two hits and one intentional walk while striking out, ahem, 22. His whiff rate since joining the Rays has hovered around 50 percent, the best in the majors during that span, swung by at least 100 throws at.

No one who follows the sport should be even remotely surprised that a reliever who had a 5.14 ERA with the Pirates has turned into a monster with a 2.36 ERA for the Rays. Diekman, who was released by the White Sox on May 6 and signed by the Rays four days later, also has a trademark Tampa Bay turnaround. His walk rate is still high, but his ERA since joining the team is 2.50 in 39 2/3 innings. With the White Sox, it was 7.94 in 11 1/3.

Stephenson said the Rays kind of didn’t tackle him for a week, but then Snyder told him the team wanted to see more speed on their slider. The club’s recommendation for Stevenson was to adjust his hand position so that he could get behind the ball rather than around it. there he is! According to Statcast, the velocity on Stevenson’s slider rose by almost a full mark, improving from 84.6 mph with the Pirates to 85.3 with the Rays.

Bucci threw 14 pitches Thursday night, Armstrong 19 and Stevenson 12. Fairbanks needed just 12 pitches to strike out the home run in the ninth inning for his 24th save in 26 chances. Deeper starts for Zach Eflin, Tyler Glasnow, and Zack Littell in the final three games of the series should help take the load off the bullpen. So does an offensive eruption or two.

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However, the Rays fully expect their games against the Orioles to be close. Cash knows he’ll just need to manage the group the best he can. Jason Adam’s return from a mild strain in his left oblique will provide a boost, but that will likely be a week later.

For now, the Rays’ relievers are just enjoying their current dominance, not that they’re talking about it much in the bullpen.

“Our level of concentration throughout most of the game is not great,” Fairbanks joked.

Reporters laughed at the comment, but Fairbanks got serious when asked why the Rays’ bullpen was so good.

“There’s a lot of good talent out there,” he added. “When you have weapons like that that attack the strike zone, it sets you up to be able to do what you want, when you want to do it.”

It happened Thursday night. It’s been happening for almost all of September. It leaves Ray’s opponents without answers.

(Top photo of Pete Fairbanks: Rob Carr/Getty Images)