After Aledmys Díaz’s single in the fifth inning of Friday’s Game 6 of the American League Championship Series put the tying run in scoring position with no outs, Blake Snell took a quick look at the Rays’ dugout. He was stunned by what he saw.
Manager Kevin Cash made his way up the dugout steps at Petco Park in San Diego, immediately motioning to the bullpen and calling for Diego Castillo. Snell handed the ball to Cash, but he was clearly frustrated about not getting the opportunity to try to get out of the jam, muttering as he walked to the dugout.
“It’s frustrating because I know, just give me a shot to get out of that,” Snell said after the Rays’ 7-4 loss to the Astros. “I really feel like how I was pitching that game and going through that game, I felt that’s what would’ve been best for us, in my mind. But again, Cash is always right. It’s just something that’s very frustrating.”
Cash going to the bullpen early in a game is certainly no surprise. The Rays have operated that way over the past two seasons, and they’ve made it clear that they’ll use their high-leverage relievers in any inning. But the move was surprising when you consider that Snell, one of the team’s best starters, had tossed four scoreless innings before the fifth-inning jam and had thrown just 82 pitches.
“I thought the way [Framber] Valdez was throwing, there wasn’t going to be a ton of scoring opportunities for us,” Cash said. “Just wanted to get the ball to Diego’s hand. That was a big moment, first and second [with] no outs. But I trusted that Diego would come in there and basically do what he’s done all season long.”
The decision to pull Snell likely had to do with the left-hander’s struggles the third time through a lineup. During the regular season, opponents hit just .140 with one home run the first time they faced Snell. That batting average increased to .307 with seven homers the second time through the order, and it held at .304 the third time through.
Despite that, Snell wanted the ball in his hand.
“That’s what he thought was the best call and decision,” Snell said. “But for me, it’s just very confusing, frustrating. I want to be out there. I want to be that guy that takes the team deep into the ballgame. So it’s just very frustrating.”
As is the case with most moves to the bullpen, the results usually indicate how successful the decision was. But for the Rays, it just didn’t pan out in Game 6. George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa each had run-scoring hits off Castillo, putting the Astros out in front, 4-1, with a four-run fifth inning.
Castillo, who is one of eight pitchers to begin his postseason career with at least 10 scoreless appearances, allowed the two inherited runners to score. That snapped a streak of 20 inherited runners left on base by Tampa Bay relievers, the longest such stretch to begin a postseason all-time.
The move to go with Castillo in the fifth inning also ended up hurting the Rays’ bullpen heading into Saturday’s Game 7. Tampa Bay had to use four more relievers to get through the final four frames, including John Curtiss, who has played a big role this season.
But Pete Fairbanks and Nick Anderson weren't used, so both should be able to give more than an inning in Game 7. Ace Tyler Glasnow, who started Wednesday’s Game 4, is likely available, too. In the AL Division Series, he started the deciding Game 5 against the Yankees on just two days’ rest, throwing 2 1/3 no-hit innings.
“They got the better of us,” Cash said. “Pretty gut-wrenching feeling, but that’s the way it goes when you’re making those decisions.”