With Super-Subs and Unlikely Stars Leading the Way, Rays Take ALCS Game 1on October 12, 2020 at 4:51 am

With Super-Subs and Unlikely Stars Leading the Way, Rays Take ALCS Game 1

When you lose to the Rays, sometimes you get beat by top prospects and players with first-round pedigrees and the kinds of hyper-talented physical freaks who make up the majority of major league rosters. And sometimes you get beat by the back of a bullpen and a light-hitting catcher and a Cuban outfielder who before September was such an unknown that he probably could’ve walked through Ybor City on a Saturday night in full uniform to the attention and recognition of no one.

In taking Game 1 of the ALCS, 2-1, against Houston, Tampa Bay leaned on the parts of its roster that collectively should amount to nothing but ended up making the difference against a team in its fourth pennant series. Blake Snell, the former AL Cy Young winner, started, but given how he wobbled and weaved his way through five difficult innings, he wasn’t the star of this one. (His last inning of work, though, was crucial: Already at 83 pitches and clearly laboring, he was tasked with facing George Springer, Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley for a third time and did so perfectly, sparing Kevin Cash from having to lean even harder on an already exhausted bullpen.) Instead, it was the Rays’ chest full of misfit toys that gave them a 1-0 series lead in this best-of-seven battle.

Case in point: the man who put Tampa Bay on the board, Randy Arozarena. Coming into this series, he’d hit .444/.500/.926 in 30 postseason plate appearances, including three homers in seven games. He treated Yankees pitching like a pinata in the ALDS, and he did the same to Framber Valdez in Game 1, poking a belt-high sinker to right-center in the fourth to make a 1-0 Houston lead vanish. Getting a fastball by Arozarena has proven virtually impossible all month; Valdez learned that the hard way.

“He doesn’t know any of these guys that he’s facing. But he’s locked in — he’s timed up — and for a guy who swings as aggressive as he does, he’s not trying to sit there and pull everything,” said Cash after the game. “Randy’s been as bright as any spot, or any player, in this entire postseason in MLB.”

No Rays fan — or anyone else for that matter — would’ve put Arozarena, acquired in a winter trade with St. Louis, at the head of a “Guys who will be crucial to a championship run” list at the start of the season. Yet here he is, clobbering away, proof that Tampa Bay has an endless reserve of contributors and an eye for talent that few franchises can match. Over and over, they turn up stars, and even when they don’t, they find useful pieces who can fit in exactly as needed.

You saw that with the first three relievers out of the bullpen after Snell exited. First up was John Curtiss, on his fourth team in the last six years, who was cut by both the Angels (after 2.1 innings) and the Phillies (after nine games with their Triple A team) in 2019. Tampa Bay scooped him up, got him to throw more strikes and straighten out his fastball, and turned him into a middle reliever who posted a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings. He tossed a scoreless sixth.

After Curtiss came Ryan Thompson, a 28-year-old rookie side-armer who was a 23rd-round draft pick by the Astros in 2014 out of Campbell University (student body size: 6,484). The Rays grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft ahead of the 2019 season after Thompson didn’t pitch at all in ’18, stuck him in the bullpen this year, and watched him use his funky delivery and subterranean release point to rack up ground balls despite a fastball that sits 91 mph. He pitched a perfect seventh.

Things got hairy when Cash went to his third reliever of the night, peripatetic southpaw Aaron Loup, aiming to steal some outs in the eighth with someone who hadn’t pitched since the end of the regular season. It almost went awry as Loup’s control wasn’t there, but with the bases loaded and one out, Cash brought in Diego Castillo, who throws a vicious slider and heavy fastballs and got a first-pitch double play off the bat of Yuli Gurriel to end the rally and snuff out the Astros’ last true hope.

That Cash used that trio of no-names is due largely to his top relievers — Castillo, Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks — all having worked hard in the Division Series. But he got away with it because this is what Tampa Bay does. It’s understanding the various strengths of the personnel and being able to mix and match not just on a batter-by-batter level but also in terms of things like differing looks and unusual release points, which Thompson and Loup bring in spades. Astros hitters had plenty of chances, putting runners on in the fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth innings, but aside from early on against Snell, no one ever looked comfortable at the plate.

With this bullpen and modular lineup — and having to face Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton — there are many ways to lose to the Rays and few to beat them. Score early and they’ll scratch you to death, bit by bit, as their hitters grind away and seemingly always have the platoon advantage. Fail to score early and you’ll be facing the best bullpen in baseball and a team that hasn’t lost a single game this year in which it’s held a lead after the seventh inning. And even if it all goes right, watch as the likes of Mike Zunino and his 65 wRC+ this season drives in the go-ahead run with a single off your best starter. It’s enough to make an opposing fan or manager tear their hair out, or at least wonder what secret sauce the Rays are pumping into their players to turn these guys into world-beaters.

No series is ever over after one game, but Game 1 was lined up well for Houston, with the team’s best starter in Valdez on the mound and the Rays coming off a bruising, draining win against the Yankees on Friday. Now the Astros must win four out of the next six with a weaker rotation and a weaker bullpen, all while trying to solve what the Blue Jays and Yankees and everyone else couldn’t: How to beat a team where there’s someone new and unexpected waiting to drive a stake into your heart each and every night.

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