Rosenthal: Momentum matters in American League race and Rays’ bullpen is providing it

BALTIMORE – For the postgame analysis of the Tampa Bay Rays’ filthy bullpen, we turn to one of their own, left-hander Jake Diekman.

Colin Poche: “Twenty-inch carry on his heater.”

Shawn Armstrong: “Nine different pitches.”

Robert Stephenson: “97 whenever he wants.”

Pete Fairbanks: “A psycho who throws 100.”

Well, that’s one way to sum it up. Here’s another: Twelve up, twelve down with seven strikeouts to secure perhaps the Rays’ biggest win of the season, a 4-3 road victory over the Orioles in the first of four games between the two best teams in the American League.

The Orioles still hold a one-game advantage in the AL East, and need only one win in the series to prevail in a tiebreaker. But the Rays’ bullpen, which has not allowed an earned run in 34 consecutive innings, gives them an edge over the Orioles, and perhaps every other AL contender as well.

Mind you, the Orioles’ bullpen is still quite good even without All-Star closer Felix Bautista, who probably is out for the season because of a partially torn UCL. The team ranks second in the majors only to the Yankees in bullpen ERA, including an impressive 3.13 mark since losing Bautista on Aug. 25. But this is the time of year when momentum matters. And the Rays’ pen has not allowed an earned run in 11 days.

Before Thursday night’s game, Rays manager Kevin Cash fretted over needing to use Poche for 20 pitches, Armstrong for 15 and Stephenson for three to secure a 5-4 victory over the Twins the previous day. Cash said he and other team officials spent nearly two weeks talking about keeping their bullpen fresh for the Baltimore series. The relievers themselves, though, seem less worried. “They know what’s at stake right now,” Cash said. “The messages they’ve given me and more so (pitching coach) Kyle (Snyder) is that they’re ready to go.”

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Colin Poche, here pitching on Aug. 1, has as many wins as Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Nola. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

So it was that the left-handed Poche was the first choice to replace the Rays’ righty starter, Aaron Civale, with the score tied 3-3 in the sixth inning. Poche struck out two in a perfect inning, and after Luke Raley’s home run gave the Rays the lead in the seventh, he wound up with his 12th win.

Most observers of the game no longer consider wins to be especially meaningful. Poche called his total, “just an interesting, weird little stat,” acknowledging it is the product of the Rays playing so many close games, an offense prone to rally in the late innings and the quality of the relievers behind him.

Still, Poche now has as many wins as Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Nola, among others, not to mention three more than any reliever. And his manager and teammates find the whole thing hilarious.

“Is he up for Cy Young?” Cash cracked.

Fairbanks, asked if the Rays honored Poche as player of the game during the team meeting they hold after each win, deadpanned, “We’ve instituted a new policy for pitching MVP. That’s if you snake a win, you’re Player of the Game. With Poche hot on trying to catch the American League leaders, it was a fair choice.”

Armstrong followed Poche with a perfect seventh, lowering his season ERA to 0.77. It was Armstrong’s 13th straight appearance without allowing an earned run. He extended his homerless streak to 38 2/3 innings. And then he was replaced by Stephenson, a reliever who might be even hotter.

The Rays acquired Stephenson from the Pirates on June 2 for infielder Alika Williams, whom they drafted 37th overall in 2020. Stephenson was surprised by the deal, saying with a smile, “I didn’t know you could get traded that early.” But Rays officials believed Stephenson might be better than any reliever they could add at the deadline, and they turned out to be right.

Stephenson has thrown 12 consecutive scoreless innings since Aug. 9, allowing just two hits and one intentional walk while striking out, ahem, 22. His whiff rate since joining the Rays is hovering around 50 percent, the best in the majors over that span, minimum 100 pitches swung at.

Anyone who follows the sport should not be even remotely surprised that a reliever who had a 5.14 ERA with the Pirates has turned into a monster with a 2.36 ERA for the Rays. Diekman, released by the White Sox on May 6 and signed by the Rays four days later, also is enjoying a trademark Tampa Bay Turnaround. His walk rate remains high, but his ERA since joining the team is 2.50 in 39 2/3 innings. With the White Sox, it was 7.94 in 11 1/3.

Stephenson said the Rays were fairly hands-off with him for a week, but then Snyder told him the team wanted to see more velocity on his slider. The club’s recommendation was for Stephenson to adjust his hand position so he could get more behind the ball instead of around it. Voila! Per Statcast, the velocity on Stephenson’s slider is up nearly a full tick, improving from 84.6 mph with the Pirates to 85.3 with the Rays.

Poche threw 14 pitches Thursday night, Armstrong 19 and Stephenson 12. Fairbanks needed only 12 to strike out the side in the ninth for his 24th save in 26 chances. Deeper starts from Zach Eflin, Tyler Glasnow and Zack Littell in the final three games of the series would help ease the burden on the bullpen. So would an offensive eruption or two.

The Rays, though, fully anticipate their games against the Orioles will be close. Cash knows he will just need to manage the group as best as he can. The return of Jason Adam from a mild strain of his left oblique will provide a boost, but that probably is a week away.

For now, the Rays’ relievers are just enjoying their current domination, not that they’re talking about it much in the bullpen.

“Our level of focus throughout the majority of the game,” Fairbanks joked, “isn’t great.”

Reporters laughed at that comment, but Fairbanks turned serious when asked why the Rays’ bullpen is so good.

“There’s a lot of good talent down there,” he said. “When you have arms like that, that attack the strike zone, it sets you up to be able to do what you want, when you want to do it.”

It happened Thursday night. It has been happening for almost all of September. And it’s leaving Rays opponents with no answers.

(Top photo of Pete Fairbanks: Rob Carr / Getty Images)

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