For most of their 60-game schedule and especially in the postseason, the Rays won using a pretty simple formula: Score early, then open “The Stable.”
But Tampa Bay has had some trouble putting that plan into action in the World Series for two reasons. For one, the Dodgers seem insistent upon taking an early lead against the Rays’ starters, as they’ve scored first in four of the five games so far. Also, Tampa Bay’s vaunted bullpen hasn’t been quite as automatic as it was during the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The Rays have fallen behind often enough that manager Kevin Cash hasn’t been in position to ride his best relievers in every game. That will change in Game 6 and, if the Rays stave off elimination, Game 7. The Stable is rested, ready and raring to pitch.
“We’re going to get aggressive tomorrow,” Cash said on Monday’s off-day. “If we can somehow get a lead and limit them, we’ve got some of the big guys in the back end of the bullpen that are ready to go. … I know that’s our strategy, to get a lead then to get aggressive where we feel like we can limit whatever offense is out there.”
The other part of the Rays’ strategy, Cash acknowledged, is throwing a bunch of different looks at opposing hitters. Perhaps you saw the graphic, presented in the form of a clock, displaying just how many arm angles Tampa Bay’s pitchers throw from.
That makes the depth of the Rays’ bullpen important over the next day or (they hope) two. They can’t let the Dodgers get comfortable, which means Cash is presumably prepared to empty The Stable behind starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in Games 6 and 7.
“That’s kind of our M.O.,” Cash said. “That’s what makes us special at times, especially from the pitching department -- just continuing to give different looks, consistently being inconsistent with the looks that we’re giving opposing lineups.”
Based on the way Cash has deployed his relievers throughout the postseason, we know which arms he trusts the most and which pitchers he’s most likely to use in high-leverage spots. So here are the unofficial Rays bullpen confidence rankings, a look at which pitchers Cash should feel most comfortable calling upon after Snell exits Game 6.
1) Diego Castillo, RHP
2) Pete Fairbanks, RHP
3) Nick Anderson, RHP
These are their biggest and best arms, the top three high-leverage options at Cash’s disposal. As he brilliantly managed the Rays past the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, Cash sent out Anderson, Fairbanks and Castillo after starter Tyler Glasnow.
Nobody faced more than nine batters, so no one in the Yankees’ lineup got a second look at any of the four pitchers. Anderson was the only one who allowed a run in the Rays’ 2-1 win. It’s not hard to imagine Cash executing a similar game plan, although Snell pitched well enough in Game 2 to earn a longer leash Tuesday.
As for the order here? It’s a “what have you done for me lately?” game sometimes, and Castillo has been their most dependable reliever in the postseason. He has a 1.64 ERA and 1.27 WHIP with 12 strikeouts in 11 innings during the playoffs, and he’s pitched the best of these three in the World Series.
Putting Anderson third almost feels unfair, because he was arguably the best reliever in baseball during the regular season. He is capable of putting up zeros and striking out opponents with the best of them, and his ability to shut down potential turning points -- as he did in Game 2 -- makes him incredibly valuable.
However, it’s at least a little bit concerning that Anderson isn’t missing bats the way he did in the regular season. He only has nine strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings during the playoffs, and he’s allowed a hit per inning. That won’t -- and shouldn’t, really -- keep him from pitching in a big spot in Game 6, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Fairbanks has more consistently delivered strikeouts over the past month.
4) Ryan Thompson, RHP
5) Aaron Loup, LHP
6) John Curtiss, RHP
If Snell pitches deep enough into the game and the Rays have a lead, you might not see these three. But there’s hardly any reason to panic if they take the mound.
They were all reliable during the regular season, Loup posting a 2.52 ERA and 0.84 WHIP while Curtiss put up a 1.80 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. And what a story Thompson has turned out to be.
Selected in the Minor League phase of the 2018 Rule 5 Draft, Thompson wouldn’t have even been on the Rays’ Opening Day roster under normal circumstances this year. He would have been in Triple-A. But he kept pitching well in Summer Camp, leaving Tampa Bay with no choice but to carry him. And here he is now, a year removed from working as a substitute teacher, a critical part of the Rays’ postseason bullpen.
“He’s been a stud for us basically all season long,” Cash said.
Thompson is a tougher matchup against a cluster of right-handed hitters, given his arm angle, but he’s been effective against everyone lately. He hasn’t given up a hit while recording eight outs over three appearances in the World Series, and he’s put together a 1.93 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in nine outings this postseason.
Loup has always been tough on left-handed hitters, an important trait given the power bats in the Dodgers’ lineup, and he played a key role in the Rays’ Game 2 victory. Curtiss has been excellent since an ugly outing in Game 1 of the ALDS, allowing only two runs (both on homers) with eight strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings over eight appearances, and his scoreless outing at the end of Game 4 set the stage for the Rays’ improbable game-winning play in the bottom of the ninth.
7) Ryan Sherriff, LHP
8) Josh Fleming, LHP
9) Shane McClanahan, LHP
These are probably the Rays’ break-open-in-case-of-emergency options given everything at stake. Sherriff is the most likely to get in a game because of his effectiveness against left-handed hitters; he’s held them to a .289 OPS -- yes, OPS -- in his career. That ability could come in handy in a big spot against Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy or Joc Pederson.
Fleming could pick up a bunch of innings if necessary, whether it’s after an early exit or in the event of extra innings. McClanahan has an electric arsenal, but it’s hard to imagine Cash handing the ball to the rookie, who made his Major League debut in the postseason, with the Rays’ season on the line.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.