Here’s something just about every player in the Rays’ clubhouse will tell you about their skipper: Kevin Cash puts them in the best possible position to succeed, and that plays a role in their ability to find every little competitive advantage -- and thus, every ounce of success.
Hence, the opener -- a strategy that has since permeated just about every corner of Major League Baseball. Hence, the four-man outfield -- a look that the Rays haven’t shied away from using in this World Series.
Hence, the willingness to burn a bench player for the sake of securing the platoon advantage in an important game situation. With Tampa Bay's offense falling listless against Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May in the middle innings of Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Cash put counterpart Dave Roberts in a bind during the Rays’ best scoring opportunity in the bottom of the eighth inning of an eventual 4-2 loss.
May was cruising, having allowed only a single through six batters, so when the lineup turned over, Cash sent the left-handed Ji-Man Choi to the plate in place of Yandy Díaz, who had been 2-for-3 with an RBI triple. Roberts countered with left-handed reliever Victor González -- and Cash countered the counter by burning Choi for another pinch-hitter, Mike Brosseau, setting the Rays up with platoon advantages for not only Brosseau, but also -- gasp -- Randy Arozarena.
“I'm going to do everything -- we're going to do everything -- to get the best matchup that we think is going to help us stay in the ballgame, tie the game, whatever it was,” Cash said afterward.
That was clearly the outcome that Cash wanted in that situation, and it had worked out great for the Rays earlier in the Fall Classic. Tampa Bay’s skipper pulled an identical move with Choi and then Brosseau hitting for Willy Adames in the seventh inning of Game 1 on Tuesday night. Brosseau got a pinch-hit RBI single off González, followed by a run-scoring knock from Kevin Kiermaier in a rally that was only quenched by a fluke line-drive double play right back to the mound.
So history repeated itself with the Rays looking to claw back from their two-run deficit on Sunday, running out of outs. Roberts obliged by again putting González on the mound to face Brosseau -- and this time, Arozarena -- with a man on base.
And actually, Roberts was totally fine with that.
“For them to pick on Victor or make a three-player move to get a matchup was worth it,” Roberts said. “I like Victor spinning the baseball against Arozarena. I just liked the matchup, and Victor performed.”
How could that be? Brosseau annihilated lefties with a 1.121 OPS against them in the regular season. Arozarena had a 1.478 OPS with the platoon advantage in the regular season -- not that he needs the help during this record-breaking romp through the postseason.
But as Roberts alluded to, he had a plan.
González threw sliders on three of his first four pitches to Brosseau before having to rely more on his sinker as Brosseau stubbornly worked a nine-pitch walk. His only pitch to Arozarena was a slider -- tagged harmlessly into center field for a quick out. With the platoon advantage against the left-handed Brandon Lowe, the rookie González induced another flyout to escape, though it required a four-star catch by Cody Bellinger in shallow center.
Firstly: González’s slider is an elite pitch. During the regular season, batters hit .063 with an .094 slugging percentage and 18 strikeouts against the offering. What’s more, right-handed hitters didn’t manage a single hit against his slider this year. Of the 50 sliders González threw to righties in the regular season, only six were put in play -- and none fell in.
Secondly: Breaking balls were, without question, the way to attack Arozarena this season. None of his seven regular-season homers came against those pitches -- against which he hit .154 with a .154 slugging percentage. His sample against left-handed sliders is admittedly low, as he only put five of them in play this season, but two were pounded straight into the ground and one was popped up. Those aren’t the worst odds against a guy as locked in as the rookie outfielder.
“That guy is on another level, being locked in,” Blake Treinen said. “You get some hitters who can cover certain pitches at different levels, different zones. He's been able to cover almost every pitch in every zone, so to get that guy out is what's huge. Victor has been great for us all year.”
Brosseau fared better against breaking balls this season and actually hit a González slider for that single in Game 1. But you’ve got to figure the Dodgers were more worried about Arozarena in that situation -- and Roberts did have reason to believe that the move to González would work out, regardless of how Cash felt about the situation. And if González ran into trouble against one of those two, he had a left-on-left matchup with Lowe to clean up damage -- which he did.
"Dave Roberts is a tremendous manager in his decision-making,” Cash said. “The last thing I'm going to do is try to guess along with him.”
For Roberts, the situation essentially boiled down to letting May face Choi and Arozarena before potentially putting González in to face Lowe, or biting the bullet and letting González face Brosseau and Arozarena. Though May cruised with the second-highest average four-seam velocity (100.7 mph) of his career and the third-highest average sinker velocity (99.5 mph) of his career (minimum 5 pitches), it’s also worth noting that seven of Arozarena’s record-breaking nine homers this postseason have come against fastballs.
And, well, it worked. May got his bounceback outing after a tough Game 2 on Wednesday night without being left in too long to run into trouble, González got the outs against some tough righties, and Cash didn’t have Choi available off his bench in the ninth against Treinen. It’s just another example of how complex even the simplest-looking decisions are at this level -- and all the nuances at play in these late-game situations with everything on the line.
Roberts put his players in positions to succeed, too -- and González executed.
“González made a really good pitch -- looked like a back-door slider that was going to catch the edge, and Randy just caught it off the edge of the bat,” Cash said.