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What If...? Here are the key moments when a small difference could have changed the Rays 2021 season

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Six scenarios that could have changed everything for the 2020 pennant winners in 2021.

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What If...?

This is a question we may all be asking ourselves following the 2020 American League Champions early exist from this year’s postseason. But there are many version of that question to be asked.

Here are the “what if” that I have found myself asking in the week after the 2021 ALDS.

What if... Kevin Kiermaier clears the fence in Game 3?

The Rays lost the ALDS on back-to-back walk off wins by Boston, but not without controversy. Kevin Kiermaier nearly gave the Rays the lead in the 13th inning of Game 3 with a flyball that looked like it was going to be a homerun.

Instead, the ball nicked the wall, bounced down into the field of play, and then ricocheted off the charging right fielder (old friend) Hunter Renfroe and into the bullpen for a ground-rule double, preventing Yandy Diaz from scoring.

Many after the game believed the umpires should have used their discretion to allow Diaz to score a run, which would have given the Rays the lead and possible changed everything in the game. Pitching plans might have been altered, vibes in the stadium certainly would have been different, you never know what effect runs on the board might have had.

Alas, the following frame a two-run homer sealed the deal, and that one run would not have mattered... but would two runs have mattered?

If the flyball hit by Kevin Kiermaier had not bounded back into play but instead had gone the other direction, then any homerun hit by Vazquez only ties the game, and the night continues, brining Jordan Luplow, Brandon Lowe, and a certain phenom named Wander Franco to the plate.

What if... Shane McClanahan does not pitch the third inning of Game 4?

Coming off a respectable performance in the Rays Game 1 shutout on Thursday Oct. 7, Shane McClanahan took the mound in the third inning against of the deciding Game 4 on Monday, Oct. 11. McClanahan was in unfamiliar territory: Mid-game, on short rest. The results were devastating.

Kevin Cash called in Sugar Shane to face the right handed Christian Vazquez, who led the third inning with a single. After one out, McClanahan issued a four pitch walk to Kyle Schwarber. Then, with two outs, McClanahan then faced Rafael Devers, allowing a loud homerun to deep center:

McClanahan would be left in the game to give up two more runs as well: an RBI double to Alex Verdugo that scored two, and then a full-count RBI single to JD Martinez. One has to wonder how many of those batted balls would have been outs in Tropicana Field, but there a more pressing questions at hand.

Why did McClanahan remain in the game for JD Martinez after allowing four runs? Furthermore, did McClanahan need to face the right handed Vazquez, who was fresh off a walk-off performance in Game 3, to start the frame? Based on how the game played out, it seems likely that Shane McClanahan was to be trusted with the mound in the third inning regardless of the result, but what if he’d not been brought in on short rest at all?

With a win the Rays would have had a travel day after the game. The entire bullpen should have been at Kevin Cash’s disposal. Was the goal to treat McClanahan as a reliever or to try and squeeze several innings out of the Rays rookie starter on short rest? Why wasn’t McClanahan reserved for a starring role in Game 5?

What if... what if... what if...

What if... Rob Manfred waits until the post-season to implement sweeping changes to how pitchers pitch?

During the 2021 season Major League Baseball decided it had seen enough of pitchers using substances to improve their grip on the ball following a handful of pitchers turning to extremes with a weight-lifting substance known as Spider Tack.

It was a shocker for the baseball world, as the vast majority of pitchers had been using something to improve their grip of the baseball and take stress off their arms. Some of baseball’s best succumbed to injury in the following month, including Cy Young candidates in both leagues: Jacob deGrom and Tyler Glasnow.

Glasnow himself drew a direct line from the change in rule enforcement to his injury — you can read more on those reactions here: Tyler Glasnow’s injury is MLB’s fault.

Although in later interviews he was certainly more measured, and regardless of the cause, it goes without saying that the Rays postseason odds would have been improved with their best pitcher.

What if... the Rays only win one in their last series against Yankees?

With home field advantage in the postseason on the line, the Yankees were unable to win Game 160 or Game 161 against the Rays. As a result, the American League Wild Card was played in Boston.

What if the Yankees are able to win a one-run ballgame in Game 160? What if Jordan Montgomery doesn’t have the worst game of his career in Game 161?

Winning either game moves the wildcard game from Boston to New York, where the Yankees gain a home field advantage and in some cases more standard ballpark dimensions (right field notwithstanding).

There is a longer exercise to be had here where one could look at the batted balls in the wild card game and to see if they change which flyballs were or were not homers and if the Yankees win on that difference alone.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying the ballpark dimensions and home crowd are an advantage for both New York and Boston when they play in their respective stadiums.

One more victory by the Yankees against the Rays in the final weekend of the regular season, and maybe then the Bronx Bombers wouldn’t have been bounced out of Boston in a one-game series, and baseball’s hottest team never gets a chance to see the Rays in the ALDS.

What if... Nick Anderson is able to recover from injury?

The Rays had the best reliever in baseball when they acquired Nick Anderson from the Marlins in 2019. During the pandemic shortened 2020 season, Anderson began to decline and clearly wasn’t his old self in the play-offs. Instead of sitting him out with injury, the Rays tried to use Anderson again and again, and you likely remember what happened when he was called in during Game 6 of the World Series in relief of Blake Snell.

In the current year, it was determined what seemed obvious. Nick Anderson was injured, his elbow was not the same, and he would need to address an injury during the 2021 season.

Like teammate Andrew Kittredge, who rehabilitated an arm injury and became an All-Star closer, Anderson also opted for rehabilitation, but the results were not the same.

After a lengthy trip rehabilitating through the minors down the stretch, making 13 appearances across levels looking to right the ship, Nick Anderson returned from injury throwing without the same velocity or movement, and his season ended with a back strain. Anderson was left off the playoff roster and did not appear in the ALDS.

Like the injury to Tyler Glasnow, it’s not novel to note how much better the Rays could have been with baseball’s best reliever, and when it comes to injury sometimes all you can do is shrug your shoulders and ask, “what if...?”

One more.

What if... Charlie Morton’s option is not declined?

The Rays had one of baseball’s best pitchers under contract for 2021. A pitcher who was a fan favorite, a leader in the clubhouse, a franchise post-season hero, and who most importantly wanted to pitch for the Rays, a rarity for the baseball’s elite veterans.

But the Rays did not believe Morton was worth $15 million this season. It would seem that fielding baseball on a budget — particularly after a season without ticket sales — led the Rays to try and diversify their risk while saving a few bucks. Instead of spending $15 million on one man, the Rays in turn spent $6 million on Chris Archer, $3 million on Michael Wacha, and $2.5 million on Rich Hill.

During the 2021 season, those three veterans combined for a mere 239.1 innings with a 4.55 ERA, 4.49 FIP, and 1.9 WAR. Along the way, Archer contributed less than 20 innings to that total, Michael Wacha faltered and was essentially converted to a relief role, and Rich Hill was traded to the Mets as the Rays lost faith in his ability to contribute. (In a different what-if scenario, Hill went on to make 13 more appearances, with a 3.84 ERA and 4.02 FIP over 63.1 IP, good for 1.0 WAR.) Archer would not make the playoff roster, and Hill would not make the playoffs in New York.

Meanwhile, Charlie Morton continued to be one of baseball’s best.

Less than a month after he was released from his contract, Morton had a one-year deal signed with the Atlanta Braves for $15 million, and then mid-season was performing so well the team signed him to a one-year extension for $20 million, with a club-option for 2023 at another $20 million.

Thus far, it looks like the Braves are getting what they paid for, as Morton had another sensational season in line with his achievements with Houston and Tampa Bay over the previous four seasons: 33 starts, 185.2 IP, 3.34 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 28.6% K, 7.7% BB, and 4.6 WAR.

As you might expect, based on what Morton brought to the table in the playoffs with Tampa Bay, he’s been even better in the post-season for the Braves: 2 starts, 9.1 IP, 14 k (35.9%), 2 BB, 4 ER (3.86 ERA, 2.85 FIP), and will take the mound in Game 3 of the NCLS this afternoon.

How different would the Rays season and post-season have been with a pitcher of Charlie Morton’s caliber on the roster?