Rays paint bullpenning masterpiece to force G5

October 10th, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tuesday arrived as scheduled, bringing with it a second elimination threat in as many games. If the Rays were worried about their chances against the Astros, it didn’t show, as they stayed a course few outside their circle thought they’d still be traveling. 

Tampa Bay’s 4-1 win in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field on Tuesday night forced a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday back in Houston. It also highlighted the Rays’ quirky ways and just how effective they can be.

“Their pitching is exceptional,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “What they did on the mound tonight was incredible. They're not just throwing different arms at you. You talk about the opener; they'll throw a lot of different arms and get platoon advantages. That's not neglected. Their stuff is really good. They're throwing elite guys.”

No one plays a “bullpen day” better than Tampa Bay, because the Rays essentially invented it. The idea that each game didn’t necessarily mandate a “starter” surfaced on May 19, 2018, with one inning from reliever . What was partially an inventive approach to keep opponents on their toes -- an idea that has since spread to many teams across the league -- was also largely born of necessity, and Tampa Bay relied on the strategy again this season when injuries forced the club to be creative.

had the not-so-simple task Tuesday of opposing Astros ace , who’s about as stingy as they come. While the Rays’ opener never let emotion slip past his passive visage, the radar gun told a different tale; a 99-mph sinker and a 100.1-mph two-seamer, fastballs that hovered in the 98-mph range throughout and a devastating, knee-knocking slider.

“They’re nasty,” said catcher of his pitchers. “They’re all locked in, too. They pick each other back up. What more could you want from a pitching staff? It’s been a lot of fun working with them, and it’s enjoyable every day, coming to the park knowing everybody is ready to go.

“Everybody wants the ball in their hands in big situations. I mean, what else could you want?”

Castillo primed the crowd for what was to come, allowing a leadoff single before fanning the side as 32,178 fans roared with delight. Next, skated through two scoreless frames, then took the reins for an outing that included a nine-pitch sixth.

Anderson -- who came over in the Trade Deadline move that sent and top outfield prospect Jesús Sánchez to the Marlins -- twirled a career-high 2 1/3 innings that he concluded by coaxing to line into a double play and ringing up on a called third strike.

In a dance deftly coordinated by the Rays’ staff and executed to near-perfection by its six-man cast on the hill, Tampa Bay’s bullpen combined to outduel a giant: Verlander lasted just 3 2/3 innings against a vicious Rays offense that tagged the future Hall of Famer for four runs on seven hits and three walks.

The Rays' relief crew, on the other hand, took a shutout into the eighth before launched a two-out solo home run off left-hander , the Astros’ only run.

Poche, who relieved Anderson, was otherwise perfect in his 1 2/3 frames before handing the ball to to polish off the eighth and work into the ninth. The moves came so often that one particular camera shot of Tampa Bay’s staff calling down to the bullpen caused FS1 analyst Joe Girardi to quip, “I wonder if they have to pay for minutes?”

The grand finale included a surprise guest, starter , who put a bow on the package in the ninth with a strikeout followed by a game-ending groundout from to earn his first career save.

Tampa Bay’s bullpen day -- its 44th of the year -- certainly produced the intended result during the most crucial game of the season. The Rays are 27-17 in “opener” tilts, with the team pitching to a combined 3.81 ERA in those games.

On Tuesday, the Rays had no problem once again relying on six to lead them because, well, who better to showcase how the machine works than the ones who invented it?

“We knew going in that we were going to try to get the ideal matchups for everybody,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “We weren't going to let anybody face the same pitcher twice. But the guys, the pitchers, were just unbelievable, how they executed pitches.

“It just kind of laid into the next reliever that came into the ballgame.”

What was once considered an off-the-wall strategy played a big role Tuesday in extending the Rays’ season at least one more game. will start Game 5 for Tampa Bay, but who follows in line -- or how long that line will stretch behind him -- depends upon the situation. One thing is certain: All hands are on deck and each and every one of the team’s 12 pitchers will be available if needed.

“Their entire bullpen got up at some point during [Tuesday’s] game, sometimes twice,” Hinch said. “I'm not going to be surprised if is available in Game 5. I'm not going to be surprised if Blake Snell is available in Game 5. I wouldn't expect anything less out of this type of game.”

And that’s exactly the reaction the Rays are aiming for.