'We love to prove people wrong': The Rays blaze another unique path toward October

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

ANAHEIM, Calif. — In order to rediscover the Tampa Bay Rays again, to sort through the frail assumptions of who they are and separate the reputation from what actually wins games, a few minutes at a corner locker here seemed a reasonable start.

The young man stood and introduced himself, “Emilio Pagán,” he said, and maybe that name doesn’t sound altogether familiar, which is the point, because he has 19 saves for one of the few bullpens in baseball that isn’t going to pieces, a bullpen that has thrown the most innings in the game (openers will skew that statistic, but so will injuries to Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow), and a bullpen that has sent 29 different men out in relief of something.

The Rays are spending some time a half-game this way or that way in the wild card race, jostling for their first postseason in six years. As usual, they find their own lane, load up on juice boxes and fruit roll-ups, open the windows and shout into the wind about how cool and fun this all is. That the road is often uphill doesn’t ever seem to stifle their enthusiasm, even when they have to win — or lose — in unique ways that become standard, only to have to find more unique ways again.

It’s probably, frankly, exhausting.

Take Pagán, the 28-year-old right-hander who’d had a 4.35 ERA for the Oakland A’s a year ago, was traded to the Rays in the three-way deal that sent Jurickson Profar from the Texas Rangers to the A’s last winter, began this season in Triple-A Durham and by Friday night, over 59 appearances, had become one of the better relievers in the American League.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 10: Emilio Pagan #15 of the Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 10, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Basically, Pagán said, he’d simply decided to become a better pitcher, the sort of decision the Rays would be on board with. So, he’d thought back over the conversations he’d had with former teammates in the Oakland bullpen — how Lou Trivino chased and maintained velocity, how Shawn Kelley varied his deliveries, how Blake Treinen kept hitters off his fastball with flecks of offspeed pitches — and when the offseason was over he’d added a mile per hour to his fastball, gotten comfortable with a slide step and retook to a curveball he hadn’t thrown since high school and college. (The Seattle Mariners, his original team, had had him ditch the curveball for a slider, which Pagán still sort of throws, except he’s regripped it and turned it into a pitch that more resembles a cutter.)

“I was pretty determined to have a good year,” he said. “I was on such a good team last year and I didn’t contribute to what I thought I was capable of. That ate at me for a long while. I wanted to throw the ball better. I wanted to be a better pitcher.”

This is how a guy goes from missing the final cut in spring to saving games in September, born from the sorts of choices and commitment every franchise hopes for, and also the sort of happy outcome the Rays rely on.

It’s why Travis d’Arnaud, dumped by the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers in the same week in May, batted cleanup against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday night, having hit 16 home runs and OPSed .810 in 81 games for the Rays. Why a seemingly chaotic pitching plan — with openers and bulk men and wholly fluid roles — is a real plan and is accepted by the real pitchers as a not unreasonable way to do things. And why shortstop Willy Adames becoming a power threat and a defensive asset may escape the notice of most, but not in this clubhouse, not in this dugout, where every inch is counted as the one that just might get them all to October.

Said d’Arnaud: “I love it here. I love the philosophies here. It’s the new part of baseball that’s trendy and at the same time the old-school stuff. It’s who we are. It’s how we got here. And I get it.”

All of that has played for the Rays in 2019, well enough to have 13 games remaining with a decent chance to attend the wild card round, and long enough to have survived to get the ball back to Snell and Glasnow. Last year’s AL Cy Young Award winner, Snell is scheduled to make his first start in two months Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium. Glasnow will start Saturday night in Anaheim, his second start since early May.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 05: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays during batting practice before the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on Thursday, September 5, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

This is what surrounds Pagán and in turn powers the Rays, who, again, will do it their way. They will be one of 14 teams that will not set a single-season franchise record for home runs in 2019. Probably. The other 16 either have or will. They won’t score runs with the New York Yankees or Minnesota Twins or Houston Astros or even the A’s, but they’ll pitch better than all of them, behind Charlie Morton, of whom you have heard, and also Ryan Yarbrough and Diego Castillo and Oliver Drake and Nick Anderson and, among others, yes, Emilio Pagán.

“We love to compete,” Pagán said, before getting to the real point, “and we love to prove people wrong.”

That kind of stimulus only goes so far, for eventually it’s time to pitch and hit. And eventually it’s time for the ninth inning, which has become his time.

“I try and treat it like every other inning,” he said. “But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I’d like to do or have a chance to do. I think I can do it for as long as I stay healthy. That said, there are 10 guys in our bullpen who have the stuff to be a closer.”

In the coming two weeks and perhaps beyond, the Rays will count on that. They’ll have to. That, and everything else. Time to shout into the wind. It’s the Rays again.

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