Tonight the Tampa Bay Rays look to close out the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. To this point the Rays have been the team with a traditional starting rotation with the Yankees looking to get creative.
The script flips tonight. This is the moment Rays manager Kevin Cash has been training for. They have used many tactics to win games over the last few years and one of them has been the Opener. When Cash announced Ryan Thompson would start for the Rays in game four it set up for the Rays to debut the concept in the 2020 playoffs.
This won’t be the first time Cash has gone with an opener in the playoffs. Last year in game four of the ALDS vs the Houston Astros, Diego Castillo made the start.
Let’s get inside the mind of Cash heading into game four.
This isn’t Aaron Boone’s first rodeo when it comes to facing an opener. Much like when Deivi Garcia started game two Cash didn’t go overboard with left handed bats because he knew that JA Happ coming into the game early was a possibility so went with a balanced lineup.
Boone has very few actual lineup decisions to make as his top seven hitters in the lineup have been the same for all three games with DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, Giancarlo Stanton, Gio Urshela, and Gleyber Torres.
The lineup decisions in the eighth spot have been between Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner. The catcher has batted ninth and been split between Kyle Higashioka and Gary Sanchez. I would have chosen Gardner and Sanchez.
Note the lack of Clint Frazier. If Boone is expecting Cash to use Ryan Yarbrough as the bulk man then it’s very possible he chooses Clint Frazier to not give a clear spot for the Rays to bring in their left handed pitcher. He didn’t do that here.
Baseball is a hard game to script even if some events look like they must be scripted, but you need multiple game plans to get you through all the possible outcomes in a game. In the playoffs this is more true where leashes get shorter and you need to be prepared to pull out all the stops even early in the game as you lose the game in the first inning.
Cash has already declared his opener will be Thompson. This will be the second open for Thompson. His first came on August 8 against the Yankees. He faced seven batters and collected six outs. If the Yankees start Gardner I think this is what the Rays will be looking for out of Thompson. If the Yankees go with Frazier I would expect the Rays to look to get one full time through the lineup. They might be reluctant to have him try for more than 2.0 innings as he’s never done it before, but in an ideal world he could get nine outs.
The first big question will be when does Cash call upon bulk guy Ryan Yarbrough? Not so fast. Is Yarbrough going to be the first pitcher out of the bullpen Thursday night? I believe the bulk guy will be Aaron Slegers.
Slegers doesn’t look like the obvious first choice as Yarbrough has been the poster child of bulk guys. No matter who starts the Yankees are going to be very heavily right handed with the first seven batters being right handed along with the switch-hitting Hicks. Even though Slegers isn’t the first one to come to mind he’s primarily been used in the 2.0-4.0 inning role. In all but two of his appearances he’s thrown at least two innings. In 7 of his 11 appearances he faced a minimum of nine batters. So my expectation here is one time through the lineup and any potential extra batters that Thompson doesn’t face.
The thing you want to avoid is facing the Yankees big bats in Judge, Voit, and Stanton multiple times with the same pitcher if you can avoid it.
In an ideal world this gets you through 18 batters and 4-5 innings. This puts you in the realm of 5.0 innings that the Rays have gotten from each of their first three starts. Leaving you 4-5 innings to cover.
This is where game state comes into play. If you are losing either by either of the two pitchers the Rays used you have the option to go to Yarbrough to provide some length and see if your offense gives you a chance.
If you are winning you can play very aggressive with your bullpen for the rest of the night. One of the benefits of the Rays building a healthy lead last night was the Rays didn’t have to use the majority of their high end arms to close out the victory. Castillo threw the ninth but was the only notable reliever used. This gives a full strength Nick Anderson and company to shorten the game.
In the playoffs everybody is available to some degree. In the regular season Cash might not want to throw guys three games in a row, but that goes out the window now. Castillo would be throwing in his third straight game so he is very likely limited to one inning each in games four and potentially five.
Cash has shown a willingness to use Anderson for as many as seven outs in the playoffs and multiple innings when necessarily. Coming off a full day of rest he likely will be called upon to throw two innings in one of the next games and still be available for one inning in the other.
Pete Fairbanks needed the breather yesterday after being extended to 25 pitches on Tuesday night. He’s available both nights and might even be more than three outs on one of those occasions.
Anderson, Castillo, and Fairbanks are the big three arms that if the Rays are winning you could reasonably see them combining for 4-5 innings.
In an ideal world that’s all you need in a Rays victory.
However not everything works as planned and you do need some contingency plans. John Curtiss has thrown 66 pitches over the last three days, so he is very unlikely to be available. This leaves Oliver Drake as the lone right handed batter to take on the Yankee right handed batters. Unfortunately Drake is only a right hander by nature, but in practice he might as well throw left handed.
I don’t think they would ask Shane McClanahan to pitch in back to back games so that leaves Aaron Loup as the only other reliever in the pen. Unless Boone decides to play Gardner there’s no obvious place to attack a left hander and even in that case you have to expect a swap to Frazier.
So no ideal spot for the left handed relievers but if you need to steal a few outs there are worse options than either Loup or Drake face the bottom of the Yankees lineup.
Playing aggressively with the bullpen in the right game state makes a lot of sense as it probably is the best way to convert a winning game into victory as you cross the finish line, but a win also grants you an additional day off between rounds versus playing a game five.
So the Rays will want to do everything within their power to win tonight, but could there be a surprise?
Will Cash call upon Snellzilla to finish things off?
This might sound extremely risky, but when Cash was asked about the importance of finishing this game tonight in order to not face Gerrit Cole in game five he answered, “I”m not entirely convinced that Cole won’t pitch in game four.”
In the playoffs almost anything is on the table when it comes to pitching, and my first thought was he said that because it’s something he’s considered with Blake Snell in game four if it calls for it.
The big difference between the two is the Rays can end things tonight where even if the Yankees win tonight they still need to win game five to advance. You need to put a lot of effort to force that game five, but you also can’t kill your chances in game five by doing it. You might win the battle but lose the war.
Earlier I mentioned that Castillo opened for the Rays in game four of the ALDS last year and that’s something the Rays have done countless times, but the real surprise came in who got the save in that win. Snell came out of the bullpen to get the final two outs to secure the win.
Not everything is exactly the same as last season. Most notably the lack of travel days on pitcher usage. Last year when Cash made the decision to bring Snell in for the save after being the game one starter is he had Tyler Glasnow in reserve who would start game five on full rest even though he started game two because of two travel days.
This year you won’t have any pitcher even Snell if he was saved for a potential game five on full rest twice in the Division Series. However in a do or die elimination game absolutely everything would be on the table including using Snell, Glasnow, and Charlie Morton in some combination for 4-6 innings.
The Rays can afford to be aggressive tonight and still have pitching available for game five and this is something the Rays should absolutely consider should the right situation present itself.