SEATTLE -- Ryan Yarbrough’s career day came one out shy of a milestone that’s becoming so increasingly rare in baseball that even the Rays hadn’t achieved the feat in three years.
The left-handed Yarbrough was pulled after a career-high 8 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Mariners on Sunday in a matchup-dictated decision. Instead of allowing Yarbrough a shot at a complete game -- which would’ve been the Rays’ first since Matt Andriese went the distance on May 14, 2016 -- Rays manager Kevin Cash instead turned to reliever Emilio Pagan, who quietly induced a groundout from Omar Narvaez to secure a 1-0 Rays win and a series sweep.
Yarbrough, whose 99 pitches were 11 shy of a season high, was confounded with the decision, yet cognizant of its context. His would-be final batter was right-handed-hitting power threat Domingo Santana, who, with one stroke of the bat could’ve tied the game, with the Rays holding just a one-run lead.
“I don't think how we kind of go about things that anything surprises us anymore,” Yarbrough said. “But at the same time, you're obviously wanting to finish a ballgame.”
Cash, who consulted with pitching coach Kyle Snyder about his plan, said that before letting Yarbrough go out for the ninth at just 89 pitches, he knew that Yarbrough never would’ve gotten the chance to face Santana. Pagan having punched out Santana on three pitches the night prior also played into the decision, though as soon as Yarbrough’s substitution was complete, Mariners manager Scott Servais pinch-hit the left-handed-hitting Narvaez, his backup catcher, who grounded out.
“The thought process, simply in that inning, is that we knew Santana was coming up third ... liked the better matchup with Pagan,” Cash said. “Very difficult decision, given obviously with what Yarbs provided for us. But felt like that was to give us the best chance to win.”
Tampa Bay is also clinging to a 1 1/2-game lead for the second American League Wild Card spot, and the team in pursuit also won on Sunday, as the A’s defeated the White Sox two time zones east midway through the game. The club is also without two everyday position players (Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe), three starting pitchers (Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos) and were in the eighth game of a 21-game stretch against sub-.500 clubs, with an urgency to navigate their way through a pennant chase by winning games against clubs that they’re proverbially supposed to.
“I think we've said it all along and I definitely stand by it: It's an unselfish group,” Snyder said. “Every guy in here is doing what we need to do to come out on top, especially right now at this time of year.”
The Rays operate on the unorthodox. They pioneered the opener strategy that has become so borderline mainstream that even their opponent on Sunday employed the tactic -- and with effectiveness, as the Mariners held them to just six hits. All that to say, Sunday’s decision didn’t necessarily come with complete disbelief. But Yarbrough’s chance at his first career complete game since a seven-inning doubleheader outing for, perhaps fittingly, the Mariners’ Double-A affiliate, still stung.
“Obviously, a little angry,” Yarbrough said. “But I think [Cash] would want me to be. I think he would want me to want to finish it. I don't think I have any ill-will about it or anything. Obviously, Emilio came in and did a great job, and we won the ballgame and got a series sweep against a team that beat us up last year. We're real excited about that, honestly, and we'll have a happy flight and go to San Diego.”
Cash could’ve installed Pagan for a traditional three-out save, but Yarbrough’s first two batters -- Mallex Smith and J.P. Crawford -- were lefties and had gone a combined 0-for-6. Ironically, Yarbrough has reverse splits, entering Sunday with a .590 opposing OPS to righties and a .744 mark against lefties. Two of the three hits he gave up on Sunday were to lefties Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager.
But attempting to divert attention on the narrative, Cash outlined that Sunday’s conversation should’ve centered on how Yarbrough gave the Rays’ rotation clarity, after the club deployed starters conventionally for the entire three-game series in Seattle without openers. Yarbrough threw 23 first-pitch strikes, reached just three three-ball counts and carved his way through a Seattle lineup that leads the Majors with 4.12 pitches per plate appearances with efficiency.
“We're in the spot where we've got to win games,” Cash said. “We're going to stay consistent to the decisions that have gotten us to this point. Those guys are really good in the clubhouse. Obviously, they want the best for their teammates and I certainly do, too, but I liked the matchup that we got.”