The Rays, for better or worse, always seem to zig when every other team in baseball zags. In the playoffs, the Wild Card games in particular, teams load up their roster with pitchers. Turn starters in to relievers, carrying as many as 11 hurlers out of 25 spots.
Tampa Bay, of course, chose to do the opposite. They named just nine pitchers on their roster for tonight, going with a very long bench of position players instead. A long bench that curiously includes three catchers. Perhaps Cleveland, with Carlos Santana and even Yan Gomes, could understandably carry three catchers as the aforementioned receivers can both play first base. Santana’s bat is such that he could forcibly start as the designated hitter – in fact they’re doing just that.
Nobody would ever accuse Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton, and Chris Gimenez of being designated hitters. The three catchers combined to hit fewer home runs and Gomes, who hit 11 to Santana’s 20. But the Rays are here today, and have been a consistent contender since 2008, because of their ability to get more out of all 25 spots on their roster. To play matchups as soon as an edge presents itself. To move players around and platoon and extract the, erm, extra 2% that can make the difference between winning and losing.
Perhaps this is a case of Billy Beane‘s famous quote from Moneyball, about how his shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. For all their regular season success and marginal surplus value, the Rays have not won a playoff series since they reached the 2008 World Series – losing twice in a row in the LDS. The extra 2% makes a difference over the long haul, but in a coin flip game? That two percent might not outweigh the zillion other tiny factors that could each swing or hang on a single moment in a single game. This is the joy and pain of the win-or-go-home Wild Card proposition.
The Rays don’t have the horses to shift gears dramatically, just running out their nine best and going toe-to-toe with the AL’s best as they reach the postseason again this year. They will (potentially) die as they live – seeking tiny advantages, leaving no stone unturned.
They will counter Cleveland’s barrage of relief pitchers with a parade of pinch hitters to the on deck circle. Defensive replacements until the cows come home. It should be Overmanagin’ Joe Maddon in his element – making moves for moves’ sake. The Rays Way, like it or lump it. Settle in and prepare for a very long game – one that may turn on a hunch or a single cell in a spreadsheet.