Feb. 11 was just another sleepy offseason Tuesday like any other, one day before pitchers and catchers were set to report to Port Charlotte, Fla., for Spring Training. It’s probably safe to say most of the baseball world barely took notice when the transaction wire blipped as Aaron Loup, the recently injured journeyman left-hander, signed a Minor League deal with the Rays.
The baseball world sure is taking notice now.
There was nothing remotely journeyman-like about Loup being summoned in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the World Series to face Cody Bellinger, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, who represented the tying run as the Rays clung to a two-run lead with two outs.
Loup fell behind Bellinger, 2-1, but drew a foul on a sinker at the bottom of the zone to equal the count. His fifth pitch was another sinker, middle-middle, but it clearly wasn’t what Bellinger was looking for. He completely froze. Strike three. Another big strikeout and a flyout later, the 32-year-old Loup had all but closed out Tampa Bay’s 6-4 win over the Dodgers that equalized the Fall Classic at one game apiece Wednesday at Globe Life Field.
"Loup's been really good this postseason -- really good,” Rays Game 2 starter Blake Snell said. “He's been good all season, but this postseason, he's really come up big in big situations.”
Who could have thought that the veteran sidearmer would have carved out this high-leverage niche on the biggest of stages? Well, the Rays, obviously -- finding hidden gems is just about all they do -- but the odds didn’t look to be in Loup’s favor.
When he signed with the Rays in February, he had pitched only 3 1/3 innings the previous season after spending most of the year on the 60-day injured list with left elbow troubles. He’d posted ERAs north of 4.40 in three of the four seasons before that. The Rays had no shortage of left-handed options -- José Alvarado, Colin Poche, Jalen Beeks, Ryan Sherriff and even top prospects Brendan McKay and Shane McClanahan come to mind.
Loup drew eyes with his performance in Spring Training and Summer Camp, though, and when injuries necessitated a move, he was added to the roster on July 16. All he’s done since is post a 2.52 ERA in 25 innings during the regular season -- holding lefties to a .581 OPS -- and earn manager Kevin Cash’s trust in tight situations.
The circumstances on Wednesday certainly qualified.
Cash noted that Loup was the choice in that situation because the Dodgers’ flurry of pinch-hitters earlier in the game lined up a trio of lefties -- Bellinger, Edwin Ríos and Joc Pederson -- with matchups that the Rays liked.
It helps that none of those hitters had ever faced Loup. The veteran left-hander likely derives a considerable advantage in such situations because of his extreme sidearm delivery that’s only accentuated by his placement on the far first-base side of the rubber. Left-handed hitters see those pitches coming from well behind them -- the second-furthest release point in that direction in the Majors.
Perhaps that’s why Bellinger saw such a center-cut pitch go by for a called strike three. And why, leading off the ninth, Rios met an identical fate when Loup perfectly spotted a curveball at the top of the zone for another called third strike. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had to dig into his bench to summon the right-handed-hitting Austin Barnes -- and Loup retired him on a harmless flyout.
“Aaron Loup has always been really nasty,” Cash said. “We’ve seen him from his days in Toronto where we’d scratch our head. It’s not a fun at-bat for a left-handed hitter.”
Loup’s no stranger to pressure. The Rays had put him into the game with the bases loaded in his two most recent appearances -- both in the American League Championship Series against the Astros -- and both times, he escaped unharmed. He hasn’t been scored upon in six appearances this postseason, and he has stranded all seven runners he has inherited.
What was the secret ingredient behind this Rays reclamation project?
There’s no magic Rays pixie dust to it -- it’s all about throwing strikes. During Loup’s first seven seasons, he struck out three batters for every walk. This season, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is up to 5.5. He walked only four batters in 25 innings this season, placing his walk rate in the top seven percent in the league.
“Throw strikes. Your stuff speaks for itself,” Cash said. “You can see the movement and how the sinker falls out, the slider sweeps -- you see all that from the side. The more that we can throw strikes, then try to pick the best spots for him to come in against the hitters that he’s supposed to get out.”
Among lefties with more than 300 pitches thrown this season, Loup ranked third in MLB in the percentage of his pitches that hit the strike zone. Talk about a turnaround.
“You’re not going to find many guys throwing from sidearm angles, if not sub-sidearm angles, that reach the mid-90s and have it reach the mid-90s as often,” Cash said. “Not to mention having above-average breaking balls.”
Just ask Bellinger.