Rays' bullpen needs 'to get back on track'

Struggling relief corps can't hold a pair of late leads but insists there's no need for concern

September 12th, 2021

DETROIT -- The American League East-leading Rays limped away from Comerica Park after a largely forgettable September series, having lost two of three to the Tigers, including Sunday’s 8-7 defeat in 11 innings.

• Box score

There is no panic button to hit, of course: The Rays have done such a good job of racking up wins and stacking talent that it would take a truly spectacular catastrophe to keep them from the playoffs. Still, even at 89-54 -- the third-best record in the Majors -- Tampa Bay’s time in Detroit was pretty rough on its bullpen, and with the postseason just around the corner, late-inning concerns are only natural.

None of those issues were raised by the Rays, even after they coughed up a three-run lead in the eighth and a two-run advantage in the 10th on Sunday. Tampa Bay ultimately dropped the game, and the series, when issued a bases-loaded walk with two outs.

“That's a tough one to lose, but that's going to be playoff baseball,” outfielder Brett Phillips said. “We saw it last year; that's how it's going to be. When we face teams down the stretch, there are going to be teams that may not be in [a] playoff position, they want to take that from us.”

The bullpen has been a strength for the Rays all season, able to enter early and hold firm late no matter how much or little wiggle room there was. So the recent questions about its effectiveness might very well be unfounded, according to righty .

“I know it's frustrating right now, having had a couple rough games here, but for the most part, I think, I 'm going to go to battle with those guys all the time,” he said. “Everyone down there feels the same way, and I'm excited for us to get the ball again [Monday].”

For a while, things were looking up. Phillips sparked a four-run eighth with a go-ahead two-run home run, his first hit since being activated from the IL earlier in the day.

As sharp as Tampa Bay was with the bats late in Detroit -- the Rays scored 10 runs in the seventh inning or later during the series -- the relief corps was hit and miss. There were some bright spots, like Dietrich Enns’ four no-hit innings on Saturday to earn his first career victory.

But Tampa Bay also muffed a 4-3 lead on Friday, with the Tigers scoring a combined seven runs against Pete Fairbanks, Kittredge and Shawn Armstrong. Detroit took that contest, 10-4.

After the Rays’ 7-2 win on Saturday that included five innings of one-run ball from the ‘pen, Sunday’s slip may have stung the most.

The Rays were still celebrating the four-run eighth that put them ahead, 5-2, when Detroit plated three (two earned) in the bottom of the frame against David Robertson to crush the visitors’ momentum. The Tigers opened the inning with four consecutive singles to move to within 5-4, then tied the game on an error by Phillips, whose throw from right-center sailed just over cutoff man Joey Wendle and allowed Derek Hill to score from second.

“No one's to blame but myself, unfortunately,” Phillips said. “I knew I had to be quick with the throw … just rushed it.”

The game stayed deadlocked until the 10th, when Yandy Díaz’s run-scoring double and Kevin Kiermaier’s RBI groundout gave Tampa Bay a two-run lead. It vanished just as quickly in the bottom of the 10th when Jeimer Candelario jumped on a hanging slider from Kittredge for a two-run homer.

“Very frustrating, especially coming off the heels of one the other night, too,” Kittredge said. “[It was the] same pitch, really, just a different side of the plate.”

The Rays didn’t score in the top of the 11th, and a pair of one-out walks from Feyereisen in the bottom of the inning loaded the bases and made it clear Tampa Bay was in trouble. Feyereisen coaxed a groundout for out No. 2 before weathering the final insult of the weekend: a five-pitch, walk-off walk to Robbie Grossman.

“I think there's a lot of faith in the guys we've got down there to pull out of the little scuffle that we're going through right now,” Kittredge said. “Everyone's stuff is still the same, everyone's the same guy that they've been all year.

“There's no reason to get concerned or worried, but [we] definitely … just need to get back on track.”

For manager Kevin Cash, the entire weekend could be boiled down to one simple concept.

“We're a really good team,” he said. “[When] we've got the lead, we feel like we should win the ballgame."