Tuesday night’s Tampa Bay Rays game was typical in a few different ways. Erasmo Ramirez delivered a great start, the Rays defense was excellent, and the run support was lacking. Then you looked at your watch, saw the contest was zooming by, and watched Kevin Cash bring in Brandon Gomes for a 2-0 game in the eighth inning. However, different doesn’t have to be worse, and Rays fans can be more than satisfied with their team’s victory in the first game of their series with the Atlanta Braves.
Erasmo Ramirez got hit extremely hard early in the game. He allowed four hits in the first two innings, avoiding giving up a run only thanks to a great relay from Daniel Nava to Logan Forsythe to Curt Casali along with a questionable slide from Cameron Maybin. Even in the third inning, two of his outs came on line drives that fortunately made it into fielders’ gloves. However, if Ramirez’s turnaround began with luck, it managed to last because of skill. Ramirez retired 16 batters in a row from the final out of the second inning to a leadoff single in the eighth.
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Ramirez finished with 7+ innings allowing no runs on 5 hits, striking out 4 while walking none. His groundout to flyout ratio was a strong 9-3. Ramirez had serious issues early in the game because he was never able to get a good feel for his changeup. The offering that is usually his best went for a strike just 6 of the 12 times he threw it and didn’t force a single swing-and-miss. However, Ramirez was able to survive with one of his best fastballs of the season–he used the heater to record all 4 of his strikeouts–along with a better-than-usual slider. It was great to see him survive without his best stuff to continue his remarkable season.
Williams Perez was incredible for the Braves as he tossed a complete game, but Kevin Kiermaier was thankfully able to go down and get a changeup in the seventh inning and drill it for a go-ahead two-run homer. Ramirez then went out to start the eighth, but he left the game after allowing a leadoff single to Adonis Garcia. Replacing him was not Jake McGee, not Brad Boxberger, not Steve Geltz, but Brandon Gomes, he of the 4.38 ERA overall and 7.90 mark since June 20th. What was Kevin Cash thinking?
As it turns out, though, Jim Hickey has been working on a new approach with Gomes. In this game, he was extremely slider-heavy, using it for 10 of his 15 pitches, and the results were good. Gomes struck out Andrelton Simmons and got Eury Perez to ground into a force before Nava made a nice running grab on a Michael Bourn liner to end the frame. Even more surprisingly, Gomes back out to start the ninth and forced Maybin to pop out. Then Cash came out to remove Gomes in favor of Xavier Cedeno.
It was the ninth inning, but Cash was treating it just like the sixth or seventh. Considering that this game finished in just 2 hours and 2 minutes, it was usually around the time in the night that the sixth or seventh would be anyway. And Cash had his reasons for not using McGee or Boxberger–they were tired after heavy use in the Mets series, and one off-day couldn’t make up for that entirely. He wanted to give them additional rest, and he had pitchers he believed in to finish the game in their stead. Gomes had his new approach, Cedeno has been spectacular of late, and Alex Colome was ready to come in if need be.
Speaking of Cedeno, Steve Kinsella pointed out that Cedeno has been untouchable since the All-Star Break, pitching to a 0.00 ERA and a 14-0 strikeout to walk ratio in 8.2 innings. But Cedeno wasn’t brought into this game as a fill-in closer–instead, the mindset was far closer to his usual one. All Cedeno was doing was coming in to face lefty hitters Nick Markakis and A.J. Pierzynski, just like he had done earlier in games so many times. Cedeno did allow a groundball single to Markakis, but the next grounder he enticed went right to James Loney to start a game-ending 3-6-3 double play.
The Rays’ bullpen usage has been the object of plenty of criticism lately, but they aren’t deserving of it in this instance and not just because it worked out fine. You always want your best pitcher on the mound as often as possible, but that is subject to a few key constraints, including the fact that using your best relievers too often will tire them out and leave them more susceptible to injury. With that in mind, when you can rest them and still be confident in the pitchers you have on the mound, that is really an ideal situation.
Using Cedeno in the eighth or ninth after a nice long start especially makes plenty of sense. He entered tonight having held left-handed batters to a .203/.244/.230 line on the season–he can retire same-side hitters anytime from the third inning to the ninth. If the Rays see a bunch of lefties coming up in a game where he hasn’t yet been used, even if you are the biggest Brad Boxberger supporter, it makes sense for Cedeno to pitch instead if he is sufficiently fresh. Cedeno will still likely see most of his time in the sixth and seventh innings, but expect to see him in a few more late-inning spots like this before the year is through.