What Madison Bumgarner did in World Series Game 7 is almost incomprehensible. With his team up by just one run and everything on the line, he entered the game on two days’ rest and proceeded to go 5 scoreless innings allowing just 2 hits and no walks while striking out 4. Needless to say, the Tampa Bay Rays have never had a relief appearance up to the caliber of Bumgarner’s performance last night. That being said, his heroics is a good excuse to discuss the two greatest relief outings in Rays history.
The first takes as all the way back to the Rays’ inaugural season, 1998. The date was April 18th, and the Devil Rays entered the game with a 6-4 record and plenty of hope. The fans who came to Tropicana Field that night, though, had no idea what they were about to witness.
The game between the Devil Rays and the Minnesota Twins was as crazy as you will ever see. Tampa Bay trailed 7-1 after four innings, with some guy named David Ortiz started the scoring for the Twins with a two-run homer off Rolando Arrojo. However, the D-Rays responded with five runs in the sixth, including home runs by Rich Butler and Paul Sorrento off LaTroy Hawkins. Minnesota came back with three in the following half-inning, but Tampa Bay delivered five runs for the second straight inning to take an 11-10 lead.
The D-Rays handed that lead to Roberto Hernandez, but that game did not turn into one of his 101 saves in a Rays uniform. Matt Lawton‘s single scored two runs and it looked like Tampa Bay’s great comeback would go to waste. The D-Rays had one out and Bob Smith on first against Rick Aguilera as Jerome Walton stepped in to pinch-hit for John Flaherty. His double scored Smith and took the game into extra innings. It was there that Esteban Yan took over.
Yan was far from a great pitcher in a D-Rays uniform, managing just a 5.01 ERA in 418.2 innings pitched with the team. That night, though, belonged to him. Yan took over for Hernandez for 10th and tossed 5 no-hit innings, striking out 2 and getting 9 more outs on the ground. The Devil Rays finally won the game in the 14th when Smith drilled a walk-off homer off Mike Trombley.
For his efforts, Yan accumulated a WPA score of .727, even greater than Bumgarner’s .603 mark. Obviously, adjusting for when these two games took place negates that advantage and then some, but it was a spectacular effort for Yan nonetheless, and no Rays reliever has managed to top it.
The other relief appearance to talk about took place in 2011. Alex Torres did not become a consistent contributor to the Rays bullpen until 2013, but he was called up in September of 2011, and it is a good thing that he was.
Entering their game against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 24th, the Rays were down 2.5 games in the Wild Card to the Boston Red Sox and time was running out. They had just five games left to play while the Red Sox had six. Every game was critical, and Joe Maddon made every managerial decision with that in mind. After Jeff Niemann allowed two runs in the first inning to Toronto, he had seen enough and brought in Alex Torres to start the second.
Why did Torres possibly warrant coming into that spot? Entering the game, the 23 year old had tossed three different one-inning appearances, allowing at least one run in each one. Adding to the fun, he had walked 6 batters in his 3 innings pitched and also entered the game on just one days’ rest. His stuff was electric, but he seemed to be far from big league ready, especially with so much on the line. However, sometimes Maddon had an uncanny feeling about what a player is capable of doing, and this was one of those times.
Torres went 5 shutout innings allowing just 3 hits, striking out 5 while walking 1. Suddenly he had his fastball and changeup working to perfection, and Rays fans saw exactly how good of a pitcher he had the ability to be. He finally got a run of support after he had tossed 3 scoreless innings as Ben Zobrist drilled a solo home run in the fourth, and Torres made sure that run was enough on his way to his first major league victory. Johnny Damon iced the game with a three-run homer in the eighth inning as the Rays won 6-2.
September 24th marked Torres’ last appearance of the season, and 2012 wound up being a disaster for him as he lost his control entirely and put his entire career into question. For one game, though, Torres showed the potential that would make him an excellent reliever for the Rays in 2013, and that made all the difference. In a 2011 season where every game could not have counted any more, Torres emerged as one of the unsung heroes.
Hopefully someday the Rays will have a pitcher dominate like Madison Bumgarner did in this year’s World Series. Until then, though, Rays fans will have to settle for the performances of Yan and Torres along with the other exciting moments in the history of the team.