After Alex Cobb went five up-and-down innings in his start against the Red Sox, the Rays bullpen entered the game and shut Boston down. Alex Torres allowed a seeing-eye single to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he struck out two in an otherwise spotless inning. Joel Peralta came out for the 7th and while not as sharp as we’ve seen him, he worked a 1-2-3 inning, getting a lineout and a pair of flyouts. Then in the 8th, Jake McGee got into trouble, walking David Ortiz and allowing a stolen base to pinch-runner Quintin Berry, but he composed himself from there. After a groundout got him the first out of the inning, McGee intentionally walked Jonny Gomes before striking out Saltalamacchia and forcing Stephen Drew to ground out to end the inning. Three innings allowing a total of one hit, one unintentional walk, and most importantly, no runs. The 9th inning, though, was another story.
After taking a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the inning, the Rays were pumped and handed the ball to Fernando Rodney to finish off a huge victory. He failed to come through. Just one of Rodney’s first seven pitches were strikes as he walked Will Middlebrooks and got behind Jacoby Ellsbury 2-0 before Ellsbury came through with a single. Shane Victorino then bunted the runners over to second and third, and what happened next was quite telling. Dustin Pedroia, one of the Red Sox’ best hitters, was coming to the plate, and rather then walk him to load the bases and set up the double play, the Rays decided to pitch to him. That in and of itself seems like Joe Maddon showing confidence in Rodney that he could put Pedroia away. However, the Rays also played the infield back, so scared that Rodney was going to cost them the game that they were willing to concede the tying run. Why wasn’t Pedroia walked? One simple reason: the Rays could not trust Rodney to throw strikes, even with the bases loaded. Pedroia grounded out and the game was tied before Rodney got out of the inning. Rodney looked horrible, and he was lucky Jose Lobaton came through with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the inning.
Rodney had not pitched in four days entering ALDS Game 3. He looked rusty, and it was not entirely his fault as the Rays’ losses in the first two games off the series prevented him from getting a chance to pitch. But it was not just this game. It was also Game 162 of the regular season when Rodney allowed two critical runs in the 8th inning to turn what at one point had been a 7-0 lead into just 7-6. Rodney pitched very well in end the regular season, managing a 1.88 ERA from June 25th on, but he was prone to the occasional collapse and not entirely reliable. Seemingly every time he pitched, he put everyone in the stands on edge. They knew how effective he could be, but also how easily he could fall apart. Fernando Rodney will get another chance from Joe Maddon. That the way Joe Maddon manages. But if another appearance goes awry and the Rays somehow survive again, how can they keep throwing him out there?
A situation like this is certainly not without precedent. Plenty of teams have entered the playoff with an experienced closer and gone with the hot hand, usually a rookie top ptiching prospect added to the postseason roster. The Rays did exactly that with David Price in 2008. But while the Rays don’t have a player fitting that exact profile on their roster, they have several players they could resort to. Alex Torres has been unhittable his last several appearances and certainly has the stuff to close. You wish Jake McGee had a breaking pitch he could rely on, but his high-octane fastball gives him the ability to dominate as well. And the most interesting option could be Chris Archer, whose mid-90’s fastball and dynamic slider could be devastating in short stints. If Rodney struggles again, Maddon and the Rays have three other possibilities for the closer role, and they will have to make use of them.
Let’s hope that next time out, Fernando Rodney throws strikes and pitches as well as he’s capable of. With the Rays down two games to one against the Red Sox, another Rodney blow-up could end their season. But if Rodney looks less than overpowering and the Rays find a way to advance, they will have to weigh their options and assess the best way to move forward. Fernando Rodney was incredible last season and at times this year and the Rays would love it if he could find himself again. If not, however, they will have to make a sudden–though not unheard of–move to another pitcher for the ninth inning.