Rays’ most unpleasant surprise this season? Their bullpen’s struggles

NEW YORK — There are a lot of words — some likely to be endorsed by closer Pete Fairbanks — that can be used to describe the inconsistent and, at times, inexplicable performance so far of the Rays’ bullpen.

Manager Kevin Cash chose “surprising.”

The Rays had plenty of questions and, privately, some concerns about their team heading into the season.

The lineup was going to be lacking several key injured left-handed hitters, with Josh Lowe and Jonathan Aranda hurt in spring training and Brandon Lowe joining them in mid-April.

With the trade of Tyler Glasnow, all of the starting pitchers were sliding up a slot in the rotation. Then, the Rays had to fill a spot when Taj Bradley got hurt in spring training.

The defense was going to require some adjusting, with several players getting more time or in different places.

But the bullpen was supposed to be their strength.

Most of the relievers — Fairbanks, Colin Poche, Jason Adam, Shawn Armstrong and Garrett Cleavinger (before his May 2023 injury) — had, as Cash likes to say, “been there, done that” with the Rays.

Chris Devenski impressed enough last year to be re-signed. The biggest addition, Phil Maton, had an impressive resume. Jacob Waguespack originally got the last spot, which has been shuffled of late.

But before Saturday’s solid four-reliever team effort, the bullpen ERA (skewed slightly by the team’s use of openers) was 5.81, second-worst in the majors.

More confounding, it has been a group effort. At any time, there could be four-five relievers not throwing well. And almost every game — 19 of the first 21 — it showed up in terms of the bullpen allowing at least one run.

With all the data the Rays have and analyze, Cash said there is no theme or thread to what is wrong, no change in prep work or game-planning or messaging from pitching coach Kyle Snyder. The light spring workload, especially for the high-leverage relievers, was “very consistent with the way they have been handled for the last six, seven years,” he said.

Cash said the best — and, realistically, probably the only thing — the Rays can do is support the group they have and wait for things to turn.

The relievers feel the same way.

“There’s so much talent, and you’ve seen these guys have so much success, that it is surprising,” Poche said. “But it’s just baseball. I feel like a lot of these guys, their stuff looks good, they’re throwing strikes. Maybe some balls are falling that later on they’ll be outs.

“I don’t know, it’s been weird because it’s kind of been everybody to a degree. Maybe Jason is the only one who’s kind of escaped some of it. We kind of just look at it as just a weird little random occurrence early in the season that hopefully in a month or two we’ll be looking back and going, ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe we were throwing that way.’”

Adam had a similar take.

“It’s been a weird start to this season,” he said. “Every one of us would say we each expect the best out of ourselves. And I still think — something the Rays preach and are good at and taught a lot of us — we’re going to trust the process. We’re going to commit to that.”

So ‚“there’s no panic button” or any reason to change their approach, Adam said. “As long as we’re controlling the process of getting ahead of hitters and putting them away quickly — we’ve all got great stuff in here — and we’re going to be fine.”

Poche, Adam and Cash are certain Fairbanks will figure out what has gone wrong, which he described after Wednesday’s game as “an all-encompassing type of suck.”

“Not worried at all about Pete,” Adam said.

Remember him?

• Outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo, the Japanese slugger the Rays signed in December 2019 to a two-year, $12 million contract, gave up after five years of trying with six different teams to be a hit in the majors, returning to his original Yokohama Bay Stars team. In 182 big-league games, he hit .197 with a .630 OPS.

• Pitcher Tobias Myers, who the Rays got from Baltimore in July 2017 for Tim Beckham and traded to Cleveland in November 2021 for top prospect Junior Caminero, made a one-day cameo in the majors with Milwaukee.

• Left-hander Cristopher Sanchez was traded to the Phillies in November 2019 in exchange for infielder Curtis Mead in what, given Mead’s rising-prospect status, was viewed around the game as one-sided for the Rays. Not so much anymore, as Sanchez has emerged as a solid starter for the Phillies, 1-2, 2.53 so far this year.

Rays rumblings

Those 4-29-24 Rays billboards around Tampa Bay reference the planned reveal date for the City Connect uniforms, which will be worn the following weekend. … The St. Petersburg City Council vote on the Rays stadium projects looks increasingly likely to be either June 6 or June 13. … Ryan Pepiot got a lot of social media attention for the light blue stirrup socks he wore Thursday; he has favored that “old-school look” since high school and has a few more colorful combinations planned. He may be the first Ray to use the stirrups since Chris Archer. … In Triple-A Durham’s football score-looking 28-10 win over Lehigh Valley on April 9, the Bulls — per The Athletic’s Jayson Stark — had 15 hits measured at 100 mph or better. … Ex-Ray Tyler Glasnow made headlines (and created some T-shirts) by discussing on Chris Rose’s podcast how he likes to look at the stadium boards for pitch speed and other data, saying, “I’m a little radar slut.” ... The Rays were 15th in ESPN’s latest power ranking. … No. 2 Rays prospect Carson Williams is off to a sizzling start at Double-A Montgomery, going 20-for-47 with three homers and a 1.216 OPS. … A Twitter compilation of each MLB’s “most famous fan” listed Dick Vitale for the Rays … Jim Bowden’s list for The Athletic on the top potential free agents for next season includes only one Ray — Brandon Lowe as the No. 13 infielder. … David Price, B.J. Upton, Edwin Jackson and Beckham are among former Rays playing next month in the Hall of Fame East-West Classic in Cooperstown, which is a tribute to the Negro Leagues All-Star Game.

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