ARLINGTON -- Pulling a starter early and leaning on the bullpen to protect a lead is part of the philosophy that got the Rays to the World Series. Unfortunately, a decision manager Kevin Cash has made countless times over the last two seasons ultimately ended Tampa Bay’s bid at the first championship in franchise history in a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers in Game 6 on Tuesday at Globe Life Field.
With the Rays leading, 1-0, in the sixth inning, Blake Snell was giving the club everything it could have asked for in an elimination game and more. The left-hander struck out nine through four innings and allowed just two hits over 5 1/3 frames, while throwing only 73 pitches.
After Snell gave up a one-out single to Austin Barnes and with the top of the Dodgers’ lineup coming up for the third time, Cash ran out of the visiting dugout with the intention of pulling a dominant Snell in favor of Nick Anderson, who was the Rays’ best reliever in the regular season but had allowed at least one run in six consecutive outings in the postseason prior to Tuesday.
“The only motive was that the lineup the Dodgers feature is as potent as any team in the league,” Cash said. “I felt Blake had done his job and then some. Mookie [Betts] coming around the third time through, I value that. I totally respect and understand the questions that come with [the decision]. Blake gave us every opportunity to win. He was outstanding. These are not easy decisions. ... I felt it was best after the guy got on base -- Barnes hit the single -- I didn't want Mookie or [Corey] Seager seeing Blake a third time through.
“As much as people think that sometimes, there's no set plan. This organization's tremendous about giving the staff the trust to make in-game decisions to give us the best chance to win. I respect what unfolded today was pretty tough.”
The decision backfired immediately as Betts hit a double down the left-field line, putting runners on second and third. After a wild pitch scored Barnes, with Betts moving to third, Seager drove in Betts for the go-ahead run on a fielder’s-choice grounder. Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi fielded the ball cleanly and fired home, but Betts easily beat the throw to put the Dodgers on top, 2-1.
“Cash is a hell of a manager, you can’t take that away from him,” Snell said. “If Nick gets out of the jam like he usually does and our bullpen holds it down like they usually do, nobody is talking about it. At the end of the day, I see both sides.
“But with the way I felt that game and what he was able to see during that game, I don’t wanna be taken out of that game. For the most part, me and Cash, I’m going to side with him, because I know how good of a manager he is and it’s just tough because I felt so good.”
During the regular season, opposing hitters finished with a .140 batting average in their first appearance against Snell. That number went up to .307 and .304 on the second and third plate appearances, respectively. But those numbers aren’t indicative of the Snell the Rays had on the mound on Tuesday night.
For the first time in a couple of seasons, Snell looked like the pitcher who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018. The fastball velocity and command were there; so much, in fact, that the Dodgers didn’t put a single ball in play on the heater despite Snell throwing it 29 times. He paired that fastball command with his three offspeed pitches, which resulted in the Dodgers having 16 swings and misses on 34 swings.
"Snell had his stuff today,” Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger said. “He was gross."
Betts, Seager and Justin Turner, the top three hitters in the Dodgers’ lineup, were 0-for-6 with six strikeouts against Snell in Game 6. In the Series, Betts and Seager were 1-for-9 with six strikeouts against Snell. When you combine that with the fact that Los Angeles hit just .215 when facing a starting pitcher a third time through the order in the regular season, the decision is even more head-scratching.
“I felt so confident in how I adjusted after they saw me the second time and knew what I was going to do a third time,” Snell said. “I just believed in myself and what I did to hopefully see them a third time through -- and a fourth time, if needed. I wanted to go that far into the game. It was everything I wanted to do. Just empty the tank and see how far I can go.
“I felt like I did everything I possibly could to succeed against that Dodgers lineup, which is really hard to do because of how talented they are, so I don’t know. I want to be the guy that goes out there. If they beat me, they beat me. But if I beat them, I beat them. That’s how I was looking at it.”
Snell was so dominant that the decision to pull the left-hander was welcomed by loud cheers from the pro-Dodgers crowd. The decision also seemed to spark Los Angeles’ offense.
“I mean, I’m not exactly sure why. I’m not going to ask any questions,” Betts said, when asked about Cash’s decision to go to Anderson in the sixth. “He was pitching a great game. Barnes [got] a hit right there. We had a chance to do something, but they made a pitching change. Seems like that’s all we needed.”
Going with Anderson in that situation made the decision even more interesting -- or frustrating -- for Rays fans. Anderson was arguably the best reliever in the Majors during the regular season, but the right-hander ended his postseason by allowing at least one run in seven straight appearances, the longest such streak in playoff history.
“Workload, 2020 season, the whole thing is just crazy, honestly,” Anderson said. “Not having a normal routine … everything, it’s been crazy. I didn’t feel as good as I would’ve liked to, but it’s the big leagues. You’re not going to go out and feel good every time. I was going out there, still confident. It wasn’t the situation. It wasn’t being in the World Series or anything like that. … Not a lot of gas. Velo was down. I was going out there and trying to give everything I’ve got, and it didn’t work out.”
“It has been a little bit of a challenging run for him,” Cash said, “but over the last two years, there's an argument to be made that he's been the best reliever in baseball, and we trust that he's going to go do his thing.”
Anderson had implied that he was feeling fatigued throughout the postseason, which is what has caused a slight decrease in velocity and a lack of command. But still, Cash stuck with what got the Rays to this point.
“I guess I regret it because it didn’t work out,” Cash said. “But I feel like the thought process was right. Every decision that’s made, the end result has a pretty weighing factor in how you feel about it. If we had to do it over again, I would have the utmost confidence in Nick Anderson to get through that inning.”
At the end of the day, the decision to pull Snell isn’t the only factor that played a role in the Rays’ Game 6 loss. The offense scored just one run and struck out 16 times, a common theme for Tampa Bay this postseason and one that amplified every decision on how to handle the pitching staff. With a few more runs of cushion, those decisions aren’t nearly as dire.
But for the next four months, the Rays will wonder what would’ve happened if Snell stayed in the game.
“We made the decisions that we did and went with certain personnel, and it just didn’t work out in our favor,” said center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who had some parting words to the team in the clubhouse. “We have a certain formula for how we try to win ballgames, and it just didn’t work out for us tonight. Life goes on. Lot to be proud of in our clubhouse.”