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Spector | Rays find playoff atmosphere in unlikeliest of places

Jesse Spector



Tampa Bay Rays' Steve Cishek delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK – It still wasn’t easy, on the second night of the Yankees-Rays series, to get past the weirdness of Tampa Bay’s home game being played in front of a hostile crowd at the New York Mets’ Citi Field because of Hurricane Irma. The level of baseball played made it much easier, and so did the raucous crowd of 21,024, crammed together in the lower bowl and a few outfield sections.

The Rays, trailing by four games in the race for the second American League wild-card spot, need to get moving in a hurry, and that was what Adeiny Hechavarria’s home run off Sonny Gray did in the eighth inning on Tuesday night, lifting Tampa Bay to a 2-1 win in a September contest that felt, and played out, an awful lot like October.

“You could hear it in the crowd today,” said Rays reliever Steve Cishek, who was called on in the sixth inning to face Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Matt Holliday — and retired all three before also getting the first two outs in the seventh. “If Sonny Gray was down two balls, one strike, I remember one of our guys fouled a ball back, and the crowd’s cheering and getting into it. That was like in the fourth inning. It almost felt like a playoff atmosphere, in a way. So, that makes these games a lot more fun when you have that pressure.”

The way that Kevin Cash managed the game for the Rays, calling on Cishek even though starter Blake Snell had only thrown 83 pitches and allowed two hits, was a big part of why the game resembled the postseason. While Cash said he didn’t take Snell out to avoid having him face the Yankees lineup a third time and that it was a matter of getting Cishek in to face a string of right-handed batters, it was big-game strategy all the same.

Tampa Bay bolstered its bullpen with Cishek and Dan Jennings at the trade deadline, and those were the first two relievers Cash used before turning things over to Tommy Hunter, and then, after Hechavarria’s homer, closer Alex Colome. That’s the kind of formula that has proliferated through baseball in the past few years, and the Rays were able to hold the Yankees down long enough to utilize that other key feature of the contemporary game, the dinger.

“They’re tough decisions,” Cash said. “They’re not easy. I think anybody, I would anticipate, any manager would say that. … Cishek has been as good as anybody since the deadline, for us, maybe as good as anybody in baseball. That was a big time in the game.”

There are two risks involved in such a move. One is calling on a reliever and finding out the hard way that he just doesn’t have it that day. The other is doing a mental number on a young starting pitcher in the middle of a strong performance. But that’s not a worry with Snell.

“We want to make the playoffs and our bullpen’s been unreal,” the southpaw said. “So, I can see why they do that. There’s been points, too, where he’s trusted me and kept me out there. So, it goes both ways. I trust in what he’s doing, and it worked tonight, so that’s what matters.”

The Yankees, concurrently, stuck with Gray, whose low pitch count and general dominance through the night made it an impossible decision to question. Gray allowed only five hits, striking out nine and walking one, while throwing 94 pitches in the complete-game loss.

Gray also is a rare pitcher who does not habitually fade when he makes a third spin through an opposing lineup, as opponents have marginally better numbers against him the second time through. It just didn’t work out for the New York right-hander on a night when he gave up longballs to the first batter he faced and the third-to-last one.

It’s a tricky spot, because Gray is really good, and was not showing any signs of fading. The problem is that in a tie game, in a sport where one swing of the bat can change everything, it’s fair to wonder about the powerful arms from the Yankees bullpen that were fresh but never made it into the game.

“We all understand the numbers third time through,” Cash said. “It’s however you read them and however you view them.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi read the numbers and the situation in a totally acceptable and reasonable way, and still got burned. Cash played it just the way he needed to with his team, including using Jennings to combat Didi Gregorius as a pinch-hitter, and got a win he needed. In that way, it was again a lot like October, where so often the results come down to simple performance after all the right moves have been made.

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Jesse Spector is a national columnist for FanRag Sports, based in New York. The host of "Jesse Spector Is..." on Tampa Bay Lightning Power Play Radio, Jesse is the former national baseball writer and national hockey writer for Sporting News. Before that, he was the Rangers beat writer for the New York Daily News, and the writer of the Touching Base baseball blog. Jesse also has written for Newsday, Baseball America, ESPN SportsTicker, and The Associated Press.