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The Rays bullpen got stretched, and it cost them

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There really weren’t better options than Poche vs. Judge.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When Aaron Judge faced off against Colin Poche as the go-ahead run in the ninth, everybody knew it was a bad matchup for the Rays. Poche is an intriguing relief prospect, with a sneaky dominant fastball that seems to play in the major leagues, but this matchup had multiple disadvantages for him: lefty-on-righty; an extreme flyball pitcher in a tiny ballpark; an opponent with perhaps the best power stroke in the game.

The result was hardly a surprise.

While Poche faced righties DJ LeMahieu (he lined out, sharply) and then Judge, I was thinking to myself, “Uh, [manager Kevin] Cash, you wanna maybe make a change? You really okay with this?”

Then, when it happened, I thought a pretty simple “ugh,” and went to bed, and didn’t think much more about it until morning.

But I woke up still bothered. Why did Cash put Poche in that position? Well, it turns out there really weren’t that many better options.

The Tough Righties Weren’t Available

There are three right-handed relievers currently on the roster that the Rays would definitely have preferred to use there, but they’ve all been used a lot, recently, and the Rays are strict about protecting their pitchers’ arms. I doubt any of them were available.

Emilio Pagan had just pitched three days in a row, with the longest outing, of 17 pitches, coming on the third day.

Diego Castillo got five outs in Monday’s dramatic win, throwing 31 high-intensity pitches.

Andrew Kittredge also got five outs on Monday, and his took a full 39 pitches—this coming after he threw 24 pitches on the 13th.

The Yankees are a very right-handed lineup, so going into game two of the four game series without those three guys available already put the Rays at a real disadvantage. Don’t worry though, it gets worse than just that.

Lotta Outs To Get; Not A Lotta Arms; Gotta Stretch Somewhere

The pitchers the Rays had ready for this game were:

  • Ryne Stanek as opener
  • Jalen Beeks for the bulk
  • Hunter Wood
  • Colin Poche
  • Oliver Drake
  • Adam Kolarek

Stanek did his job to give length, going for two innings and giving up one run. Then Jalen Beeks came in, and was effective, but only pitched for three and a third innings before ceding the game to Hunter Wood and the rest of the bullpen.

That decision to pull Beeks at 44 pitches for Wood was Cash’s first big one of the game, and it set up what came later so let’s dwell on it for a minute.

Beeks had done very well his first time through the order, facing the minimum (with help from some bad Yankees baserunning in the fifth). As he started his second time through the order, though, he got into trouble. He struck out lefty Brett Gardner, but then gave up a first-pitch home run to LeMahieu, and a single to Judge. With powerful righties Luke Voit and Gary Sanchez due up, and representing the go-ahead runs, the leverage was high, at 2.09 (1 is average), Cash had a choice: ask Beeks to work out of it in a bad matchup for him, or manage aggressively and push his counting outs problem down the line?

He chose to be aggressive, and brought on Hunter Wood to put out the flames. Wood did just that.

Deferring high-leverage matchup problems is generally a good idea, because there’s a chance your offense will break a game open, and you’ll never have to pay the bullpen piper. In the top of the seventh, the Rays offense almost succeeded, loading the bases with one out. Unfortunately for Cash and the Rays, Monday’s hero, Travis d’Arnaud, grounded into a double play.

The next decision point came in the bottom of that seventh inning. Wood struck out Gary Sanchez, but then gave up a single to Ray-killer Encarnacion, on a pitcher’s pitch. Good piece of hitting by EE. That set up lefty Didi Gregorious and switch-hitter Aaron Hicks as the go-ahead runs, and jumped the leverage to 2.57. Once more Cash had a choice: stretch with Wood, or bring in the best available matchup and defer his problem, and once more he chose to play aggressively and defer.

It checks out. Gregorious is a lefty, and Hicks, while a neutral switch hitter over his career, has hit righties much better in 2019—and Yankee stadium plays up left-handed power, so it makes sense wanting him to bat from the right side in this moment.

Poche got the outs, but the Rays offense did nothing in the top of the eighth, and now the die was cast. The leverage to start the bottom of the eighth was already high, at 2.49, and when Poche walked Torres on a full count, it skyrocketed to 3.90, it’s highest point of the game. Obviously, Cash was going to leave Poche in to face the lefty Gardner, and he did. Poche struck Gardner out, lowering the leverage to 3.34, its second highest point.

Now what?

The only decision left was about when to use righty Oliver Drake, who was warmed up. Should Cash bring in Drake to face LeMahieu and Judge, and then, assuming that he got out of it, bring him back out for the ninth to face Voit, Sanchez, and Encarnacion? Kolarek, a strict LOOGY in high-leverage situations was only going to become an option after those five batters, when Gregorious and Hicks were due back around.

Personally I’d have preferred to go to Drake then and there, but there may have been a workload component as well. Drake was used for one out each of the two days previous, and while it was only nine pitches each day, it still counts as work. It’s possible that the Rays didn’t want Drake to have to throw an inning and two thirds worth of pitches in his third day of work.

Cash chose to pay the piper with Poche.

Poche got one of the tough outs, lowering the leverage to a “mere” 2.45, and if the stadium had held Judge, we’d be singing the rookie’s praises, and complimenting his manager for trusting him, as we all crashed from our adrenaline rushes. It didn’t, Cash asked Poche to wear it, and things got worse from there. At least Drake should be fresh today.

With the way the pitching workloads set up for this game, there was always going to be a bad matchup in high leverage at some point. After avoiding it two times, Cash chose the eighth inning.

#NeanderConsiderations

If manager Kevin Cash didn’t have the arms he needed for this game, that leads into the question of roster management. Kolarek has an option. With all those Rays righties unavailable yesterday, and the Yankees lineup full of powerful righties, and Beeks set to handle the bulk, maybe Kolarek should have been swapped out for a right-handed reliever. Easy, right?

Well, who?

It’s easy to picture Casey Sadler having gotten the call in that situation, but he was sacrificed to a roster crunch and traded to the Dodgers. Basically, the Rays got into a situation where with guys returning they needed to choose between Sadler and Drake, and they chose Drake. That choice is debatable, but fine. Either way though, there wasn’t a realistic option where the Rays have Sadler and Drake yesterday.

Flame-thrower Ian Gibault might have done the trick, but he was optioned ahead of Saturday’s doubleheader, after pitching two innings on Friday. Jake Faria had been optioned after the doubleheader, to make room for Ryan Yarbrough.

The Rays likely wanted to get a look at the newly acquired Peter Fairbanks before throwing him in to the fire.

Cole Sulser might have gotten a chance if he was on the 40-man roster, but he’s not, and he hasn’t set the world on fire in Durham.

Really, the only option for bringing up a right-handed relief pitcher and also adding some more length to the bullpen was Austin Pruitt. Which, honestly, with Beeks tasked with the bulk in New York might have been a pretty good idea.

Would the Rays have been better served by keeping the Durham shuttle churning, optioning the high-leverage groundball lefty Kolarek, and bringing up the right-handed swing man Pruitt? He’d certainly have been a more comforting arm to have available toward the end of last night’s game than Kolarek. Kolarek’s job is to get tough lefties to hit the ball on the ground, and he does it well, but that’s a very niche job. Indeed it’s so niche that perhaps the Rays could go ten days without needing that particular skill set. Especially with Poche establishing himself, and Beeks being available again for swing work during the second half of Kolarek’s hypothetical 10 day waiting period, optioning Kolarek ahead of last night’s game might have been the best approach.

Conclusion

I don’t think manager Kevin Cash really had a better option available to him, and he managed the game reasonably for what he had. The Rays were coming off six games in five days; they needed to cover four bullpen innings on Monday and Beeks is more a one time through the order pitcher at this point, than a fully traditional headliner/starter. All of these circumstances add up to create some workload issues for any bullpen.

Erik Neander and the front office maybe had one move they could have made to set Cash up better for yesterday, but I don’t want to play that one too hard. Austin Pruitt getting the highest leverage at the end of games in nobody’s idea of plan A.

There is an argument for going after outside help. Ian Kennedy sure would have been nice to have yesterday. Maybe Mychal Givens, too. Will Smith is a lefty, but a very good one, and very good pitchers are always welcome additions, especially with Jose Alvarado out now for an extended period.

The good news is that it’s another day today and Pagan, Castillo, and Kittredge should all be available again, in at least some capacity. And there are eight more games on the schedule without an off day, but after that the off days come regularly.

I think this is the first game this season we can really say the Rays lost in significant part because their arms got used up. With any luck, and maybe with some front office action, it will be the last.