Now that the Rays have finally wrapped up the AL East, they can look towards the playoffs.
In order for Tampa Bay to keep their impressive run rolling into the postseason, they will need to keep one of their most important components on track: the bullpen. With the Rays propensity for close and late inning games, the pen could be the determining factor between a merely impressive season and a phenomenal finish.
The Rays’ pen can be summed up in two words: consistency and diversity.
Throughout this season of nail-biting finishes and extra inning marathons, the bullpen has stepped up on numerous occasions and kept the Rays with at least a chance to pull off a victory. After having a horrendous ERA of 6.29 last year, the pen has transformed itself into a defensive machine with an ERA of 2.82—through Friday.
Part of the reason for their domination in the late innings comes from the variety of pitchers that Joe Maddon can pull from. No matter the situation, Maddon has had the right tool for the job.
The lefties—Trevor Miller and JP Howell—have proved themselves capable setup artists. In fact, this year Howell has logged the most innings in relief for the Rays.
The right-handers have been no less impressive. The hard-throwing Aussie, Grant Balfour, has given the Rays a legitimate strikeout threat. The late season acquisition of Chad Bradford and his submarine style pitching has provided many a groundball out.
Dan Wheeler and Troy Percival have dominated the final innings. With 26 holds this year, Dan Wheeler has become a fixture for the Rays in the eighth inning setup role.
Additionally, the Rays have turned to Wheeler more than once to fill Troy Percival’s place as the closer.
Wheeler has racked up 13 saves in 18 attempts.
This scenario may be repeated in the playoffs as Percival continues to struggle with injuries.
Overall, the biggest obstacle that will undoubtedly follow the bullpen into the postseason will be fatigue. The Rays habit of playing several tight contests in a row will take its toll.
Also, many of the starters have not been going deep into games. A string of these kinds of games could seriously damage the Rays’ playoff run. In these cases it will likely fall to Howell and Jason Hammel—they have been the long men for the Rays this year.
The pen will also get fresh arms from recent call-ups David Price and Mitch Talbot. Even with their aid, the relievers will be hoping that starters like James Shields, who has logged 214 innings and three complete games, will go deep and eat up innings for them.
Ultimately, the Rays’ bullpen has looked solid all year. If the Rays persevere through the tough road that is the playoffs, it will be due largely to the consistency and tenacity of the relievers.