LOS ANGELES — For a lot of them, what’s next, or what could be next, will be foreign. The Tampa Bay Rays haven’t done a lot of Octobers lately, which means five consecutive Septembers that have ended poorly, lost somewhere in the teeth of the AL East rip saw.
So it is that late Monday night, Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier had to know the score in Oakland first — Kansas City Royals 6, Oakland A’s 5 — and then could fall asleep. The idle Rays had drawn a half-game closer to hosting a wild card game, had remained a game-and-a-half clear of the Cleveland Indians, and this is what it looks like, what it feels like, when all the numbers go away, when there are only games to win or not.
“I got gray hairs,” Tommy Pham shrieked, brushing his hand over a head that showed none. “I’m so stressed out.”
That bad, he said.
“I’d be better,” he said, “if I hit three home runs tonight.”
And he went off to prepare to do that, or try.
The Rays’ starting lineup Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium would carry 66 postseason at-bats, 55 of them by catcher Travis d’Arnaud, six by Matt Duffy and five by Pham. The Dodgers’ lineup had seen 671 October at-bats. Cody Bellinger’s dad had as many as all but two Rays starters.
They don’t keep that sort of stuff on a scoreboard. It does, however, speak to what these Rays have achieved across 152 games and for the 10-game journey ahead, in the coming days through the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, and what could lie beyond that. They’ll likely have had to win 94, 95, 96 games, which is something even in a league in which only about half the teams are really trying.
“This is what you play for,” Kiermaier said. “This is a blast.”
About then a 6-foot-4 man entered the room, unremarkable in a room of athletes except for how much of the room he took up. And the fact he was wearing green flannel on a warm afternoon. And that he was Blake Snell, Cy Young Award winner a season ago, and he’d be pitching Tuesday night for the first time in nearly two months. The Rays were 32-17 without him, gaining no ground on the Yankees but losing none either, and actually gaining on the A’s and Indians, who would shake out as their wild card competition.
Three days after Tyler Glasnow went three innings for the Rays, on the same night Luis Severino went four for the Yankees and Brandon Woodruff two for the Milwaukee Brewers, five days after the Dodgers had hoped for two innings from Rich Hill, two weeks after the A’s got Sean Manaea back, in a September in which starters, some of them front-end caliber, are being ramped up for October, Snell struck out four Dodgers and allowed one ball into fair territory over two innings.
Six weeks ago, Snell had surgery to remove six chips from his pitching elbow. Until then, he hadn’t quite been the pitcher he’d been in 2018, when he’d won 21 games and had a 1.89 ERA. Then, few pitchers had been. It might’ve been the chips.
The plan is for a couple more starts for Snell, gradually increasing his pitch count, the way they do in spring training. The current schedule could, in the best scenario for the Rays, put Charlie Morton in position to pitch the wild card game and Snell the first game of a division series. These things so rarely go as planned, as evidenced by all the quality starting pitchers trying to extend themselves into another inning, another 10 pitches, building toward October or a shot at it.
“It’s a huge benefit, but we’ve still got a lot to do,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We’ve got to get him built up. I mean, we might have enough time here as long as (Snell and Glasnow) are performing like they’re capable of. We get them to a reasonable workload and pitch count. Then, yeah, we have two really, really special pitchers who are capable of quieting opposing lineups for a period of time.”
For his part, and for the 26 pitches he threw, Snell looked like the same guy. His fastball clocked at 95 and 96 mph. He threw sliders and curveballs and changeups. Each of his strikeouts — of David Freese, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy — were on fastballs, and big ones at that. He walked off the mound as though he had another 50 pitches in him.
Before becoming self-conscious about the gray hair that did not exist, Pham looked over at the big fella in the green flannel and said, “We get Blake Snell pitching like Cy Young Blake Snell, it’s going to help our whole morale in this locker room.”
Hope is one thing, wins are another, wins in September feel like something even more. For the Rays, as the season drew near an end, as the lights fluttered to full glow, turned out a Cy Young guy was gonna walk through that door.
“Man,” Kiermaier said, “we’ve missed him like crazy the last two months. If he can be anywhere close to what he’s capable of doing, we’ll take that.”
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