The Manager, the Ace and a Decision That Will Haunt the Rays

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Tampa Bay Rays pride themselves on creativity, on aggressively challenging conventional wisdom. That ethos helps make them an annual contender on a tight budget, and this was their best season ever.

But when the Rays needed to believe in the unseen, while facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday, they were blind. Everyone watching at Globe Life Field, especially the Los Angeles Dodgers, could see that Blake Snell was pitching the game of his life.

Kevin Cash, the Rays’ manager, could not — and he paid for it with a season-ending 3-1 defeat and a lifetime of questions.

“Blake could not have been better tonight,” Cash said. “The strikeouts, the pitch efficiency, the stuff — it was all really, really special. He put it all together for us in a big way.”

It was the kind of mesmerizing effort that World Series are made for: a former Cy Young Award winner carving through a powerful lineup with fastballs, curveballs, sliders and changeups. Snell had a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning, with one out, Austin Barnes on first and all winter ahead of him to rest.

“I wanted to go that whole game,” said Snell, who gave up two singles and no walks with nine strikeouts. “That was everything I wanted to do: burn the tank and see how far I could go.”

Cash believed he had gone far enough, never mind that Snell was pitching with a full five days of rest. Snell, 27, had not worked six innings in any start since last July, and Cash could not imagine him doing it with the season on the line. He called for the right-hander Nick Anderson to replace Snell.

The Rays rely heavily on analytics, which often serve them well. But Anderson had given up at least one run in each of his last six outings. The next three Dodgers hitters — Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Justin Turner — had each struck out twice against Snell in Game 6 already.

What more could Snell have possibly done to stay in the game?

“That’s a fair question,” Cash said. “I don’t know if I’ve got the best answer right now. He did above and beyond what any of us could have asked for.”

So why not ask for more? If you go to a restaurant, order a small dinner portion and find that it tastes better than you expected, you’re allowed to order seconds. You don’t have to switch to something that hasn’t been very good lately.

Predictably, this happened within six pitches from Anderson: a double by Betts, a game-tying wild pitch, and a go-ahead grounder to first by Seager, the World Series’ most valuable player, putting the Rays in a 2-1 hole with three innings left. Snell’s departure had jolted the Dodgers to life.

“I was pretty happy, because he was dominating us and we just weren’t seeing him,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said of Snell. “Once Austin got the hit, Mookie looked at me with a little smile. He was excited Snell was out of the game.”

Cash said Anderson had been arguably “the best reliever in baseball” since the Rays acquired him last July, and he trusted him to be the best version of himself. But Anderson had nothing left; in his final seven appearances this postseason, he had a shoddy 7.20 earned run average and only five strikeouts in 10 innings. Did he feel like the best version of himself?

“Definitely no,” Anderson said, with refreshing candor. “Workload, 2020 season, the whole thing is just crazy, honestly. Not having a normal routine, lifting, the season, everything — it’s been crazy. I didn’t feel as good as I would have liked to, but it’s the big leagues; you’re not going to feel good every time. I was still confident. It wasn’t the situation, it wasn’t being in the World Series or anything like that. Not a lot of gas.”

Anderson did not tell the coaches he was tiring, he said, because relievers almost never do — everyone deals with general fatigue by late October, he added, and he was not injured. It is a core belief of almost every player: If they are active, they expect to perform.

“My mind-set going out — it was the same, it really was,” Anderson said. “The ball just wasn’t coming out. Either way, I still should have been able to get the job done, and didn’t. I’ll always carry a lot of that weight on my back. The guys always say, ‘Win as a team, lose as a team,’ but I don’t know: I take pride in my work, so I’ll take a lot of the blame.”

Cash insisted there was no set plan to switch pitchers as soon as Betts came up a third time, no script he was told to follow. But every manager says that. The Rays believe strongly that the advantage shifts to the hitter after he has seen a pitcher twice in a game. Cash pulled Charlie Morton for Anderson in nearly the same spot in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, and it worked. This time, it backfired.

“Cash is usually right,” Snell said. “For you guys that are going to write bad stories on the decision, he’s usually right.”

True enough, and the first rule of sports is that you can’t win ’em all. But this decision seemed inexplicable as soon as Cash left the dugout, a push-button move when the moment demanded vision — or at least an acknowledgment that Anderson had been struggling.

“We factor in all of that,” Cash said. “But also: The different look means something. We know how talented those guys are, and it felt like giving Blake another time, with the margin of error that Blake was pitching with, I felt the different look was going to be beneficial.”

In his career, Snell has held hitters to a .247 average the third time through the order. That figure rose to .304 this season, but his second time through the order was actually worse, at .307. And while Betts is a right-handed hitter, he batted .200 against lefties like Snell during the regular season, with no home runs.

Mostly, though, Snell just looked like an ace who had a lot more than 73 pitches to offer. He said he had thoroughly scouted the Dodgers and himself, and knew what they were looking for and how to counter.

“I get it, it’s the third time through the lineup, but I think I’m going to make the adjustments I need to make as I see them a third time,” Snell said. “I don’t know — I just believe in me. I believe in myself, I believe in what I was doing.”

So did Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured member of the Rays, who had been enjoying the view from a lonely center field. Besides the nine strikeouts, Snell induced five ground outs, an infield pop-up and a fly out to right.

“I don’t really care what the numbers say,” Kiermaier said, “third time through the order or whatever, there weren’t many guys making contact in general, and no hard contact whatsoever. We all wanted to see him stay in there.”

Last October, facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series, the Washington Nationals let Stephen Strasburg work into the ninth inning in Houston. Strasburg’s masterful performance forced a Game 7, which the Nationals won when the Astros’ manager, A.J. Hinch, pulled Zack Greinke too soon.

So it is again, another World Series that ends with a manager trusting match-ups over pedigree, afraid to let an ace be an ace. Snell will never get this game back, and may always wonder what could have been.

“The hardest thing for me is I was rolling, I was in a groove,” he said. “I just really felt dominant, like I had them guessing. It’s just tough for me, man. It’s going to be tough for me for a while to accept that, accept losing the World Series.”

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