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One pitch to decide Game 1: Inside the Rays' crucial ALCS bullpen decision

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
·7-min read

All due respect to the other 313, one pitch was going to win or lose or foul up Game 1 of the American League Championship Series Sunday night at Petco Park in San Diego. Granted, the other 313 made this one necessary. There wouldn’t have been any need for Diego Castillo’s eighth-inning sinker to Yuli Gurriel otherwise.

For its drama — a one-run game, one out, bases loaded, the offenses not having much of a night until then — the intrigue had not been if this pitch would have to be thrown, but who would throw it. There was going to be a time when a bullpen door would swing open and a grown man would step into the light and everyone would know that this was probably it, that this baseball game was about to be settled.

It is, of course, why we wade through and skitter across the other 313, to get to this one, in this case Castillo against Gurriel, Tampa Bay Rays against Houston Astros, with a pandemic-inspired schedule threatening additional harm to the team that got it wrong.

The thing about as many as seven games in as few as seven days is how quickly, if you’re not careful or maybe a little unlucky, that series could be done after four games in four days, and not in a good way.

All it would take is a night or two where you start chasing fresh arms and sturdy innings where they might not otherwise — or naturally — be, falling behind a few pitches at a time. Then one exhausted reliever becomes two, two becomes three, and then the whole place is on fire. With no off days there will be nowhere to hide, nowhere to recover. Depth is fine, and everyone by the middle of October presumably has at least some, and there also is a reason why the same relievers see the same high-leverage innings most nights. It’s because they’re your best relievers. And now it’s the American League Championship Series, which is a good time to have those guys.

In ordinary years, which has been the start of every other sentence written in 2020, the airiness of a postseason schedule ensures the availability, within reason, of everyone’s best players. This is especially critical in the area of pitching, and then especially so in the bullpens, which have shouldered undue responsibility since they squeezed 60 games into the end of summer, then added a fourth postseason round and then plucked out the usual off days. Someone had to cover all those innings while the starters operated on their normal every-fifth-day routine.

The Rays most recently played the New York Yankees five times in five days, asked for 20 outs from their bullpen in the last of those games, took Saturday off, then arrived Sunday counting arms for the buzzsaw that was a hot Astros offense. There are no good losses in the postseason, no get-’em-tomorrows, no live-to-fight-another-days. Then again, Nick Anderson just went 2 ⅔ innings, Pete Fairbanks went two and so did Castillo. They’d followed Tyler Glasnow, who expended himself after but two days’ rest, and if you were going to pick a team that was in danger of having to chase fresh arms and sturdy innings across as many as seven games in as few as seven days, the Rays were a decent guess.

SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 11:  Diego Castillo #63 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates after beating the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS at Petco Park on Sunday, October 11, 2020 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Diego Castillo helped the Rays escape a jam in the eighth inning of ALCS Game 1. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

They also have made a pretty good living out of being 25, 26 and, today, 28 deep. Maybe it’s not as sexy as a $30 million stud in right field or a $36 million horse at the front of the rotation. But it’ll do. The Rays frankly don’t have a lot of alternatives. So they go about winning baseball games in the dank, forgotten corners where a lot of teams lose baseball games. They play a little better than you’d expect them to, almost always. In a season that asked a little more of everyone, they won the AL East by seven whole games. Then they backed that up in the Division Series against the Yankees, in the end by a single run, by the length of a home run that didn’t exactly scrape the wall but did land in the second row.

So, yes, Game 1. They started their ace, Blake Snell, the former Cy Young Award winner who had a good year if not a great one, the primary issue being loads of pitches in not enough innings. What they’d require Sunday was as much as he had to give, and also some cover for their bullpen, and that started with a 29-pitch first inning. In recent seasons the Rays have become expert at working relievers in and out of spots where their particular skill sets meet particular moments, which would be handy in situations like a five-inning start from Snell, a few spent relievers, no rest in sight, a one-run lead and a three batter-minimum rule to work around.

Rays manager Kevin Cash, who is among the best in the game at this, pushed Snell through a fifth inning and to 105 pitches in what then was a 1-1 game, then rode John Curtiss, Ryan Thompson and Aaron Loup for seven outs in what had become a 2-1 lead, straight into that moment when the Rays were going to win or not. And, perhaps, the difference was, on Sunday afternoon, when he walked into the ballpark, Diego Castillo told Cash he had an inning or so in him.

“Both teams, or certainly our team recognizes that guys that maybe were not called upon in the five-game series are now going to be called upon,” Cash said. “We definitely have the confidence to send them out there. There was an example of that today, with Loupy and with John Curtiss … I think all teams in a seven-game series straight, with no off days, you’re going to see some depth really challenged.”

But then, he said, “We’re here because of all that depth.”

Where that got him was one out into the eighth, three Astros on base and Gurriel due up, the Rays ahead by a run.

On Friday night, Castillo had thrown the Rays’ final 29 pitches across two innings. Before that, he’d appeared in Games 2 and 3.

“Man, he’s a stud,” Cash said. “He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself. We felt he could give us an inning.”

So the bullpen door did indeed swing open, and Diego Castillo did indeed step into the light, and whatever happened next would have a lot to say about Game 1, and then the Rays in this series.

His first pitch to Gurriel was a sinker, 97 mph, near Gurriel’s hands.

“It was one of those things, we needed the ball on the ground,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “That’s the first thing. When Cash-y left the mound, I told [third baseman Mike] Brosseau that he was going to get the ground ball.”

Gurriel swung. The ball left the bat and bounced past Castillo.

“It ended up going to [Brandon] Lowe,” Zunino said.

Lowe, the second baseman, tapped second base and threw to first for the double play.

On one pitch, Castillo had thrown most of the inning he promised.

“That inning went so quick,” Cash said with a grin, “I don’t think Diego at that point would have been too happy to come out of the game. But, just so appreciative of his effort and the way he’s able to come back and make just filthy pitches to unbelievable hitters.”

So Castillo pitched the ninth inning as well, ending that with a strikeout of Jose Altuve on his 17th pitch, that being the last of those 314 pitches.

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