On Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first team in MLB history to go up 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, lose three in a row, and win Game 7. In doing so, the Rays dispatched the league’s supervillains to clinch the second pennant in franchise history, and brought the curtain down on a hectic two-week residency in San Diego. Tampa Bay’s past two series, against the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, have both gone the distance, which somehow undersells the level of drama. Game 7 of the ALCS was the seventh out of the Rays’ last eight games that ended either by walk-off or with the tying run on base or at the plate.
Saturday’s 4-2 victory featured all the Rays’ greatest hits: home runs by Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino, exceptional infield defense, and a parade of impregnable hard-throwing right-handers being deployed in unpredictable fashion. For all the rhetoric about Tampa Bay’s payroll, market size, or lack of household names, they were the no. 1 seed in the American League for a reason. In this pandemic-shortened season in which rules have often been made up on the fly, the Rays have thrived.
Charlie Morton started Game 7 with 5 2/3 absolutely imperious innings. Two winters ago the Rays gave Morton, who’d just won two Game 7s for the Astros, the richest free-agent contract in franchise history, presumably with just such a situation in mind. Morton retired 16 of the first 17 batters he faced, and 17 of 20 overall, requiring just 66 pitches to do so. And yet, when a walk and an infield single brought the tying run to the plate in the top of the sixth, manager Kevin Cash turned to relief ace Nick Anderson to shut down the Houston rally. Three innings later, Cash had Tyler Glasnow, the presumptive starting pitcher in Game 1 of the World Series, warmed up in the bullpen and standing by.
That adaptability has set the Rays apart this season. It’s also set them up to succeed in October.
Every team has had to scramble this postseason; not only was there an extra playoff round and a new 28-man roster limit, but MLB announced after the trade deadline that there would be no off days within a series until the World Series. When Cash pulled Morton in the sixth, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe tweeted out a remarkable stat: Morton was the 15th starter this postseason to be lifted without completing six innings or allowing a run. In the whole of the 20th century, that happened only 13 times.
But this is not a paradigm-shifting postseason; it’s merely the latest step in an evolutionary process that has defined the past decade of playoff baseball. So much luck goes into a successful October run that it’s tough to glean substantial and repeatable lessons in strategy or tactics. If there is an enduring lesson of the 2010s, however, it’s that every inning is vitally important until the game is either over or out of reach. There’s no room to chase stability for stability’s sake, or to indulge a starter who thinks he’s 1967 Bob Gibson. Every inning may as well be the ninth.
That lesson has manifested itself in myriad and increasingly obvious ways, from how the San Francisco and Kansas City bullpens dominated in the early part of the decade, to how Cleveland relied so heavily on Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller during its run in 2016, to how the 2018 NLCS was filled with aggressive platooning and bullpen deployment on both sides, to how Houston and Washington rode all-hands-on-deck pitcher usage to championships in 2017 and 2019.
The Rays and Cash didn’t invent this style of postseason managing, but they’ve profited from it immensely. This regular season, in just 60 games, 12 Rays pitchers made at least one start and 12 recorded at least one save. Four did both. Pete Fairbanks, who saved Game 7 of the ALCS, did not record a save during the regular season. The Rays took 14 pitchers and 14 position players to the ALCS; 13 of the 14 pitchers either started a game or made multiple relief appearances. All 14 position players not only batted but started at least one game. Only 10 Astros, by contrast, batted in this ALCS more than twice.
Cash and the Rays chase situational advantages as ferociously as any team in baseball. Only Willy Adames and Manuel Margot played every inning of the ALCS for Tampa Bay; only Adames and Arozarena have started all 14 playoff games. Cash doesn’t have a starting lineup and a bench. Instead, whoever suits the team’s needs at any given moment gets the call. Ji-Man Choi hits right-handed pitching well and took Gerrit Cole deep in Game 1 of the ALDS; Choi started Game 5 of that series with Cole on the mound. But when Yankees manager Aaron Boone pulled Cole and went to a left-handed reliever in the sixth, Cash pinch-hit for his cleanup batter by inserting Mike Brosseau, an undrafted free agent who destroys lefties. Two innings later, Brosseau capped a 10-pitch at bat by hitting a series-winning home run off of lefty Aroldis Chapman.
The juxtaposition of the undrafted free agent beating the superstar closer invites a narrative in which the Rays can conjure talent from anywhere. And it is a triumph of scouting and development that Brosseau did what he did. But it’s also the product of Cash using Brosseau when he’s the best man for the job—no more, no less. Almost every big league player does at least one thing extremely well. Cash and the Tampa Bay front office know their players’ strengths so well, and assembled a roster that fits together so perfectly, that the Rays can take advantage of their strengths while exposing few of their weaknesses.
For this, Cash deserves special recognition. Baseball players, as a rule, are obsessed with routine. Getting them ready to fill any role at any time, to start or sit as the matchup and the needs of the team dictate, takes no small measure of managerial touch. Cash’s job is not only tricky because he has to execute a strategy, but also because he has to convince all 28 players that what he’s asking them to do is both good for the team and good for them as individuals.
Anderson will pitch better as a sixth-inning rally stopper if he doesn’t believe he’s best suited to be a ninth-inning closer. Chapman is among the countless closers who have struggled in that role for precisely that reason. Just in the ALDS, Boone tried a pseudo-opener approach against the team that invented the opener. But neither of the two Yankees pitchers involved, J.A. Happ and Deivi García, seemed to understand or buy into the concept.
The Rays’ minuscule payroll and suitcase-of-jellybeans approach to player usage invite an obvious comparison to richer teams with bigger names. This is an oversimplification of reality. Every pennant winner in baseball history has been some combination of extremely talented and extremely lucky. Tampa Bay’s rotation of Glasnow, Morton, Blake Snell, and Ryan Yarbrough is among the best in the league, and its inexhaustible supply of unhittable relievers—“the stable,” as Cash calls them—is all the more impressive in contrast to the two NLCS contestants, both of whom are scrambling for arms. Adames is a star in the making, and the Rays’ ability to conjure double plays out of thin air speaks to their exceptional defense.
Moreover, the team’s low payroll is not some kind of egalitarian moral force multiplier. It’s a genuine disadvantage. As good as the Rays are now, they would be even better if Bryce Harper was playing right field and not Margot, and if they had Anthony Rendon at third base instead of moving Brosseau, Joey Wendle, and Yandy Díaz all over the field. If the Rays had more star power, they wouldn’t need to be so creative. And no amount of scouting savvy or clever management could anticipate Arozarena’s transformation into Mel Ott; the rookie outfielder, who was named ALCS MVP, has slashed .382/.433/.855 with seven home runs in these playoffs. Likewise, nobody planned for Zunino, who hit .161 in two seasons with the Rays, to hit four homers in the postseason so far. The Rays have been fairly healthy this year, and still their margins of victory have been small enough that they could be going home if James Paxton or Justin Verlander were healthy.
Luck and talent are necessary conditions for a World Series run, but they are not sufficient. Even teams with bigger names and payrolls have played similarly to how the Rays are playing now. Dave Roberts’s Dodgers lineups in 2018 were even more jumbled and platoon-happy than Cash’s are in 2020. In the early days of the Astros’ run of contention, A.J. Hinch rewrote his lineup mid-game to adapt to shifting conditions. Even the Yankees—the actual honest-to-God Yankees—are using an opener. Tactical chaos has gone from being a bizarre baseball fascination to the norm.
But this world of chaotic baseball is a world the Rays are uniquely suited to inhabit. Cash isn’t springing something new on his roster; while Snell seemed upset that he was pulled after four-plus innings in ALCS Game 6, he couldn’t have been surprised given he hasn’t pitched into the seventh inning since May 2019. No team is truly built for this unprecedented playoff structure, but the Rays were built to adapt. They’ve done that, better than any other American League team, and that’s why they’re the last American League team standing.