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World Series Preview: Ryan Yarbrough could be the key to beating the Dodgers

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The big bad bats now preside from the left side...

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

One of the big storylines of this postseason for the Rays has been the “Four” Horseman: Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Peter Fairbanks.... and John Curtiss. While the meme has been great, the numbers have been even better. The actual Big Three have combined for an astounding 28.1 innings (remember: no off days!), allowing a combined nine earned runs for a tidy 2.86 ERA. (Take out Curtiss’ 0.2 IP, 5 ER disaster against New York, and that’s another six innings with only one earned run allowed.)

Part of what has made Kevin Cash lean so heavily on those right-handed arms was that, quite simply: they are the best arms in the bullpen right now. However, another part of what led Cash to that trio so frequently (Castillo and Anderson are tied for the most appearances, with Fairbanks and Curtiss tied with Ryan Thompson—another righty with a 2.70 ERA—for second-most appearances) has been the handedness of the opposition’s best hitters.

Against the Yankees, it was Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luke Voit who posed the biggest power threats. When the Rays dispatched Houston, it was Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve who gave them the biggest scares. (Michael Brantley and Aaron Hicks were two of the most pure hitters, but they don’t have the pure pop that the other six listed here have.)

Now, with the Rays set to square off against the Dodgers, the story is a bit different.

Southpaw Advantage

Here are the top six Dodgers by OPS this postseason: Corey Seager, Austin Barnes, Edwin Rios, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, and Max Muncy. Of those six, only Barnes is right-handed, and he has the fewest PA of that sextet.

As such, there’s a new group of Rays pitchers who are going to need to become Old Reliable coming out of the pen: Names like Jose Alvarado, Aaron Loup, Shane McClanahan, and Josh Fleming.

Each of those four could (and probably should) get an article of their own, but let’s just give them a sentence or two each before we get to the main lefty arm at the Rays disposal.

Here’s a run down on each:

Jose Alvarado — The Rays lefty with the highest ceiling, Alvy returned to the team before the ALCS and looked like a lean, mean punchout machine in his 1.2 innings of work against the Astros. The key phrase there being “1.2 innings,” however, and whether the Rays will fully trust him in the World Series against some of the best bats in baseball will be fascinating.

Aaron Loup — A name that conjures either fear, derision, a chuckle, or a (deservedly) staunch rebuttal to those previous three reactions, Loup has been outstanding in the postseason, with no runs allowed yet. Of course, similar to Alvy, he hasn’t been used much with just three total innings so far, which makes sense given the opposition.

Shane McClanahan — If I had really big stones, this article would be about McClanahan with the mystery pitcher to come taking his traditional Game 4 start. I just don’t see Cash trusting the rookie quite enough to perform the role about to be laid out (and that’s almost certainly the right call).

Josh Fleming — Honestly, a lower ceiling/higher floor version of the McClanahan point. I do think he’ll get some serious action in this series, potentially as the bulk guy in Game 4.

With all that in mind, one of the most interesting possibilities for this World Series is the potential to use Ryan Yarbrough as an all-purpose fireman.

Ryan Yarbrough, this is your moment

In a standard seven-game series, the Rays might expect Yarbs to take Game 4, but I’d love to see Cash get creative with his role. In this scenario, Cash would turn Game 4 into a Bullpen Day, and instead using Yarbs to put out fires any and everywhere throughout the series.

Although Yarbrough was used in a far more standard role during the 2020 season (nine of his 11 regular season appearances were starts), this is a pitcher who has proven capable of any and every role the Rays have sent his way thus far in his three-year career. Particularly in the 2018 season, he appeared in 38 games, six of them as starts, three of them as finishes, and a whole lot in the middle. Look, for instance, at his April 15-22 stretch where he made three appearances for a combined 7.1 innings, or his July 6-15 stretch where he appeared four times for a combined 7.2 innings.

Dave Roberts does a pretty good job balancing the righties and lefties in his lineup, but there is still that harrowing stretch of 2-6 in the lineup that typically contains Seager, Bellinger, and Muncy. It’s a stretch that is going to put a lot of stress on the Rays pitchers, so if Yarbrough could face that stretch of the lineup three or four times during this series in high-leverage moments, that might be even more valuable than having him as a bulk for just Game 4.

The World Series will potentially take place over an eight-day stretch, meaning he could almost certainly do something like back up Tyler Glasnow for 13 batters in Game 2; take the meat of the order once after Morton in Game 3 (remember there are now off days again—between Games 2 and 3 and Games 5 and 6); put on the fireman cap again in Game 5 for five batters, and then take those same 13 or so batters (twice through the lineup starting with Seager and ending with Bellinger) in Game 7 should this series extend that long.

It would be a heavy load for Yarbrough, and a unique enough set of requests that I don’t think many managers would try it with many pitchers. But Kevin Cash and Ryan Yarbrough are not like other managers and pitchers. And to be frank, the 2020 Dodgers are not like many opponents. They may be the best team of the past decade, and if the Rays are going to defeat them, they’ll need every edge possible. Including, potentially, the Ryan Yarbrough as Super Fireman option.