Rays' bullpen works around free passes in return to form

Waguespack opens game with four strong to help 'pen move past early season woes in win

April 13th, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays returned to Tropicana Field on Friday with a winning record after their first road trip of the season, but they hadn’t put it together in the way even they expected. Specifically, their bullpen -- thought to be their greatest strength as Spring Training came to an end -- spent the past two weeks putting up uncharacteristically high walk totals and the worst ERA in the American League.

The walks were still an issue in the Rays’ series-opening, 2-1 win over the Giants on Friday night. But runs were not.

“Right now, the [command of the strike] zone, it's not as consistent as we can be,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But when these guys need to make pitches, they're doing that.”

That was pretty much the theme of the night, from right-hander Jacob Waguespack -- who moved out of the bullpen to make his first Major League start since Sept. 25, 2019 -- to closer Pete Fairbanks. Six pitchers combined to give up six hits and six walks, but they struck out 10 and permitted just one unearned run.

It was enough to send the Rays to their first victory when scoring two or fewer runs since June 7 of last season, a 2-1 win over the Twins. They had lost 24 straight games since then when scoring fewer than three runs.

“The walks are still a little uncharacteristic. I think we'll get that ironed out. But really good job from the bullpen,” said lefty Colin Poche, who worked around a hit and a walk in the seventh inning. “We kind of held our own.”

The Rays bullpen entered the night with a 6.43 ERA, ahead of only the Rockies (6.52) among all Major League bullpens. The relief corps had allowed at least one earned run in 13 straight games to begin the season, a streak that came to an end Friday night.

They needed that kind of run prevention on a night their lineup struggled to scrape together runs. They loaded the bases with nobody out in the second inning but scored just one run, as Yandy Díaz worked a two-out walk against Giants starter Keaton Winn.

The Giants answered with a run in the third, then the Rays pulled ahead again. Harold Ramírez legged out a two-out infield single and maintained that hustle as he ran around to score on an Amed Rosario double to right-center field, an unusual play in which Rosario was ruled safe at third on an obstruction call against Matt Chapman.

“With that run, we're winning this game,” Ramírez said. “It's very important we hustle and get that base.”

Stepping into the rotation while left-hander Tyler Alexander is on the bereavement list, Waguespack allowed at least one baserunner in each of his four innings but held the Giants hitless (0-for-6) with runners on base and struck out four. He gave the Rays the length they needed with his 71-pitch outing, which Cash called “huge,” especially considering he threw 68 pitches over three innings Monday in Anaheim.

Left-hander Garrett Cleavinger worked in and out of trouble in the fifth. Cleavinger erased a leadoff single with a double-play grounder and danced around two walks by freezing Michael Conforto with an 0-2 sweeper, then struck out both batters he faced in the sixth.

“Probably the highlight of his season so far,” Cash said. “It was really nice to see him come in and get some big outs.”

Right-hander Phil Maton struck out Wilmer Flores on three pitches to bridge the gap to the Rays’ late-inning trio of Poche, Jason Adam and Fairbanks. The seventh inning ended with Jorge Soler taking a called third strike from Poche, a call that led to Giants manager Bob Melvin being ejected.

Adam, the Rays’ most consistent reliever in the early going, breezed through a nine-pitch eighth. Then Fairbanks made it interesting in the ninth.

Tampa Bay’s closer threw six straight balls to begin his outing. With the Rays out of mound visits, Shawn Armstrong began warming up in the bullpen. Pinch-runner Tyler Fitzgerald stole second and advanced to third on a groundout, putting the tying run 90 feet away.

But Fairbanks recovered, getting Nick Ahmed and Jung Hoo Lee to fly out to left for the final two outs.

“Felt good coming out of my hand, and that is my biggest priority. I think that the zone, or lack thereof, is something that will work itself out,” Fairbanks said. “It was a matter of really locking in that front arm and getting my sights over, and then after that, it kind of took care of itself.”

Walks, yes. But no runs.

“To quote Phil Maton on this one, 'There's no slug in a walk,’” Fairbanks said. “Really, at the end of the day, zeros are the most important thing.”