How Rays plan to handle latest arms shortage in bullpen

CHICAGO — Ask Jason Adam a few times, and he eventually will admit that, yes, it is different pitching in the highest-leverage situations, especially to close out a game.

But the more the Rays right-handed reliever talks about it, he explains how, when moved into that role, he deals with the additional pressure.

Which, basically, is not looking at it as anything, well, different.

“I think you have to fight thinking it’s different and start changing who you are,” Adam said Friday. “It’s different internally. So, everyone processes that differently. But as far as the pitches, good pitches get hitters out.”

The Rays are going to need a lot of good pitches, from a number of good pitchers, to get through their latest challenge.

Pete Fairbanks, their designated closer, is on the injured list with a “nerve-related issue” that is something of a mystery, as testing hasn’t found a cause. There’s a plan to have him soon resume throwing to see how he feels.

Colin Poche, their best and most proven lefty in the pen, was sidelined Friday due to mid-back tightness that required an injection to reduce that discomfort, with the hope he will miss only the minimum two weeks.

So how are the Rays — who went into the season touting their bullpen as the strength of the team — going to get any relief?

“We hate it for them, we hate it for us,” Adam said. “But it’s the next-man-up mentality. And we’re going to be fine.

“If there’s one thing this organization does well, it’s develop pitchers, get the most out of pitchers, and have depth. So, we’re not worried about the team. We’re ready for those guys to come back, and we’ll keep it hot until they get here.”

The Rays have been through this before, losing a couple of relievers — or at other times, a pair of starters or key members of the lineup — and found ways to make it work, including without set roles, or even a specified closer.

“I think that helps,” Cash said. “We’re a better team when Pete and Poche are healthy and contributing the way they’re capable of, but I also think that the guys realize it’s going to happen throughout the course of the season.

“We have done it. And we have done it pretty successfully where we’ve been able to kind of piece it together, and other people have really contributed.”

The initial plan should look something like this:

Adam, when available, will handle the highest-leverage moments, which won’t always be the final three outs of the ninth inning.

Free-agent addition Phil Maton, who has been spinning his pitches at an increasingly improving rate, will be used more in key situations.

Lefty Garrett Cleavinger and right-hander Shawn Armstrong, who had been filling mid-game and multi-inning roles, will be given increased late-game responsibilities and used in shorter bursts to be available more frequently.

That leaves veteran Chris Devenski in a swing role, Erasmo Ramirez for multi-inning (and mop-up) work, and the talented but less-experienced Kevin Kelly and Manuel Rodriguez to plug in where needed. (Jacob Waguespack and lefty Jacob Lopez are other rostered options currently at Triple-A Durham.)

“We’ll get creative,” Cash said. “We’re not going to run from anybody. We’re just going to need some guys to step up.”

Cleavinger, 30, has handled his initial opportunities well, recording his first career save on April 20, working the 10th inning with a 2-0 lead at sold-out Yankee Stadium, then earning his second on Wednesday. With Poche out, Cleavinger is likely to get more chances.

“We try to make it just like a normal outing, but, I mean, it’s tough to do,” Cleavinger said. “Those three outs are really hard to get for a reason. … I’m not saying that’s something that I’m going to be doing very regularly. But, yeah, it’s nice to be able to get a couple under your belt. And you’ve done it before, so if you are called to do it again it’s something you’ve got.”

Armstrong, 33, typically serves as something of an unheralded utility reliever, having pitched in every inning last season from the first (as an opener) to the 10th, while compiling a dazzling 1.38 ERA.

The current group of eight relievers went into play Saturday with a total of 50 career saves, 20 by Adam.

But what they lack in experience, Adam said, they can make up for with talent.

“Everybody in that bullpen is good enough to throw the ninth for any team in baseball,” he said. “So, it doesn’t matter who it is, I feel confident in everybody’s ability to step up. Doesn’t mean we don’t want those guys back as quick as possible, but it’s also nothing but confidence in every single person out there.”

If needed, Adam said, he will be there to provide a few words of advice and reminders of the Rays’ aggressive approach and proper attitude to help them through it.

“What we preach here is our process,” he said. “That helped me when I got my first save here (in 2022). I was like, ‘All right, what am I focusing on?’ I’m focusing on the things I can control, and that doesn’t change regardless of situation.

“If you need to calm a young kid down, you can do that. But I think the best way to do that is to say, ‘Hey, this is our plan, and if you do this you’re going to be fine.’ And we aren’t reactive here. You lose one game, Cash doesn’t melt down and think you’re the worst. You just reflect on what you actually did and what you could control, knowing that part of it is out of your control in baseball.

“So, I think we’re the right team for all that.”

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