For five innings on Tuesday night, the Rays got what they wanted.
Randy Arozarena homered off starter Tony Gonsolin in the first inning, forcing the Dodgers to start their bullpen shuffle. Blake Snell pitched like the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner he was, shutting out Los Angeles’ powerful lineup. And Tampa Bay’s “Stable” of relievers, back after a day off, was rested and ready to protect a one-run lead in Game 6 of the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
Then manager Kevin Cash made the controversial move to pull Snell with one out and Austin Barnes on first base in the sixth. No matter the end result, the decision to not let Snell face the Dodgers’ lineup a third time would have led to endless debate among fans. But calling upon right-hander Nick Anderson, who immediately allowed two runs to score, only created more questions.
Anderson was the strongest horse in The Stable all season long, arguably the best reliever in baseball. But he clearly was not himself in the postseason, and he admitted afterward to feeling some fatigue. And it was the decision to have him replace Snell that loomed largest after the Rays’ season ended with a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers.
In the Dodgers’ dugout, the choice to have Anderson replace Snell couldn’t have gone over better.
“Once Austin got that hit and they went to the 'pen, I think that Mookie [Betts] looked at me with a little smile,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We were just all kind of excited that Snell was out of the game.”
Anderson immediately fell behind Betts, 2-0, and gave up a double that put two runners in scoring position. A curveball in the dirt bounced away from catcher Mike Zunino, allowing Barnes to score. Then World Series Most Valuable Player Award winner Corey Seager smacked a grounder to first baseman Ji-Man Choi, whose throw home was too late to get Betts. Justin Turner hit a fly ball to deep left, which Arozarena fielded, and that was the end of Anderson’s night.
“Obviously I’ll take heat for not holding up my end on this playoff stretch, but it wasn’t anything to do with effort,” Anderson said. “I was just going out there, laying it on the line every time and just fell a little short. I don’t want to turn the page too quickly, but come in ready next year.”
Everyone knew the Rays would be aggressive with their top relievers after Snell exited Game 6. It was the formula that Tampa Bay rode to success throughout the playoffs, most notably in a 2-1 win over the Yankees in Game 5 of the AL Division Series. Anderson entered in the third inning of that game and recorded eight critical outs before giving way to Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo.
“I guess I regret it because it didn't work out. But I feel like the thought process was right,” Cash said. “Every decision that's made, that 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.”
But that outing against New York also began a tough stretch for Anderson, the kind he has simply never experienced for the Rays during the regular season. The right-hander ended the year allowing at least one run in seven straight relief appearances, the longest such streak in postseason history, including streaks that spanned multiple postseasons.
During that stretch, Anderson allowed eight runs on 14 hits (including three homers) and four walks while striking out only five batters in 10 innings. It’s a small sample, with only 45 batters faced, but those opponents hit .341/.400/.610 against him during the most important stretch of the Rays’ season.
Consider these numbers to see how much more hittable Anderson was in the postseason, and how many more free passes he gave up, compared to his work in the regular season.
Anderson, 2019-20 with Rays: 42 games, 37 2/3 innings, 17 hits, seven runs (six earned), four homers, five walks, 67 strikeouts
Anderson, 2020 postseason: 10 games, 14 2/3 innings, 16 hits, nine runs, three homers, four walks, nine strikeouts
“It has been a little bit of a challenging run for him, but over the last two years, there's an argument to be made that he's been the best reliever in baseball,” Cash said. “And we trust that he's going to go do his thing."
What went wrong? Why did Anderson take a step back at the worst possible moment?
Anderson said he “definitely” didn’t feel as strong as he did during the regular season, chalking it up to his workload and a “crazy” year that interrupted so many pitchers’ routines.
“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,” Anderson said. “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.”
During the regular season, Anderson’s fastball clocked in at an average of 95.2 mph. It was only slightly down, at 94.9 mph, in Game 6. It was higher, at 95.5 mph, in both Games 2 and 4. Anderson said he was not injured, just out of gas, so he didn’t feel like he needed to inform the Rays’ coaching staff he didn’t feel at his best.
“I guess I didn’t really say anything because, to me, I don’t know, I don’t want to say it’s not important. Whether you’re running out of gas or not, you should be able to go out and get the job done. That’s my mindset on it,” Anderson said. “If I was injured or something was hurting specifically, I’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m kind of laboring a little bit.’ You’re never going to hear any of us be like, ‘Hey, we’re a little tired.’ It’s not us. And it’s not just me. I know everybody’s tired at this point -- the whole quarantine, the whole bubble thing. It’s not just me. Everybody is [tired].”
As much as Cash will bear the brunt of the criticism for his decision, he was doing what the Rays had done all year. They won a lot of games by going to their bullpen early and often. They lost the final game of the season the same way.
“My mindset going out, it was the same. It really was. It wasn’t coming out. Either way, I still should’ve been able to get the job done,” Anderson said. “I’ll always carry a lot of that weight on my back. The guys always say win as a team, lose as a team, but I don’t know. I take pride in my work, so I’ll take a lot of the blame.”