The Rays are in deep trouble if the bullpen goes splat again

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ST. PETERSBURG — If this were any other month on the calendar, you would call Friday night’s Rays game an anomaly.

Including last year’s postseason, the Rays had gone 202 games since the last time the bullpen had surrendered four home runs in a single night. And the three relievers who gave up that barrage of long balls Friday — Matt Wisler, Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha — had a combined ERA of 2.00 in 27 innings against the Red Sox this season.

Not to mention, when scoring six or more runs in a game, the Rays had a .900 winning percentage this year.

So, yes, the 14-6 loss to the Red Sox in Game 2 of the American League Division Series usually be would dismissed as a rare, maybe even fluky, outcome for a team that typically thrives on a procession of diverse relievers to protect leads.

But in October, fluky is just another word for fiasco.

And the Rays bullpen was certainly a fiasco Friday night.

Just a few days ago, when I wrote that the bullpen would play an outsize role in Tampa Bay’s postseason fortunes, I was thinking more about the league championship series and the World Series. Instead, we’re doing a bullpen autopsy two games into the playoffs.

So, what went wrong? The short answer is the Rays may have placed too much faith in Wisler’s health and Wacha’s ability to come out of the bullpen.

Wisler had been a revelation since arriving in mid-June in a minor deal with the Giants. At a time when the Rays were going through some injuries, Wisler had a 1.98 ERA and 34 strikeouts in his first 27⅓ innings of work in Tampa Bay.

But a finger injury — which might as well be a shoulder or elbow problem for a pitcher who throws sliders as often as Wisler — limited him to two innings of work in the previous seven weeks. Even more concerning, when Wisler thought his finger had healed in early September, he lasted only one batter before heading right back to the injured list.

So was it a mistake to trust that Wisler was healthy enough to be on the postseason roster a month later? It’s looking that way. And was it a mistake to bring him in to a 5-5 game with the 3-4-5 hitters coming up and a man on first? Yeah, that’s a legitimate argument, too.

Wisler gave up a single, a hard liner to right and then a home run to J.D. Martinez.

Two innings later, the Rays had cut their deficit to 8-6 when Wacha came out of the bullpen. Used as a starter most of this season and his career, Wacha struggled in bulk and relief appearances in the regular season. When not starting, he had an 8.31 ERA and hitters had a .319 batting average and 1.040 OPS against him.

Which means it wasn’t necessarily shocking when Wacha gave up three singles, a double and a homer to the first eight hitters he faced over two innings Friday night. The only good news is he stuck around for 2⅔ innings to take the burden off Tampa Bay’s other relievers.

So is there a moral to this story?

Yes, but it’s probably not what you think. This isn’t a failure of philosophy. The Rays didn’t win 100 games despite their reliance on the bullpen. They won 100 games because they have more depth and used their bullpen more deftly than any other team in the American League.

In retrospect, the problem might be misplaced faith. The Rays were counting on the Wisler who was lights out in June and July, as opposed to the guy who had trouble throwing pain-free sliders in August and September. And the Rays were counting on the Wacha who threw 10 one-hit innings in his last two starts, as opposed to the guy who had given up seven homers in 17⅓ innings when working as a reliever.

I’ve said it before: The biggest problem with pulling Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series last season was not the lack of faith in Snell, but rather the misplaced trust in Nick Anderson.

While Anderson had been a force of nature early in his tenure with the Rays, he was fading quickly by the end of 2020. It made sense when doctors discovered an elbow injury this spring because Anderson was not the same pitcher last October.

In the end, the idea that the bullpen is the key to the postseason in Tampa Bay is still valid. The Rays have gotten this far because their relievers have carried them much of the way. The question now is whether there’s enough life in that bullpen for 10 more victories.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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