Rays right not to cave in to ridiculous criticism

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The Tampa Bay Rays are ready to resume their role as baseball’s Kevin McCallister, using every resource at their disposal to upend Wet Bandits like the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox. If Major League Baseball’s vast payroll disparity hurts the game’s competitive integrity, then it also creates underdog sagas that the salary-capped sports can’t match.

Alas, this year’s Rays carry an additional narrative of sorts (actually two, the first being their status as defending American League champions). Despite repeatedly establishing themselves as the most innovative, progressive, overperforming franchise in the industry, the Rays suddenly and dramatically turned into the poster people for Everything Wrong With Baseball.

In the cover story for Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview, new Met Francisco Lindor said: “I worry that we won’t have the freedom to play the game the way we want to play the game. … I was worried that the game was going to go to so much analytics that it was going to take over it. Well, it took over. You saw it in the World Series.”

Yup, we’re still talking about Game 6 of last year’s World Series and the call to lift starting pitcher Blake Snell with a 1-0 lead, a runner on first and one out in the bottom of the sixth inning. The southpaw had thrown just 73 pitches and allowed just two hits while striking out nine. The Dodgers took the lead that very inning against reliever Nick Anderson, who has now allowed runs in each of his last seven postseason appearances. Three innings later, the Dodgers secured their first title since 1988.

It was a very questionable move, and an even worse result, and for sure this ain’t the first time a backfiring October pitching maneuver won’t die. Just ask Terry Collins or Grady Little. Yet this one, executed by Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash, feels different in its aftermath. Rather than simply causing nightmares for the team’s fan base, it has stained an organization and a thought system (yes, analytics) that have more than proven their worth.

It is beyond ridiculous. How is it that more people appear angry, months later, over the quick hook of Snell than over the postgame decision by Dodgers veteran Justin Turner (who had been lifted mid-contest with a positive COVID-19 test) to violate protocols and pose, maskless, for a team photo, sitting next to his manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor? Would we see the same ongoing fury if Cash had left Snell in too long, as he did with Tyler Glasnow in Game 1 of the Series? Or if the similar removal of Charlie Morton in AL Championship Series Game 7 (two outs in the sixth, up 3-0, two men on with two hits a walk and six strikeouts on Morton’s line) had lost the Rays the pennant?

Regardless, the Rays plow forward, owning the action and its consequences.

“We’re positioned to take on everything the season’s going to throw at us and try to make another run in the postseason, hopefully one more successful than what we did last year,” said Erik Neander, the Rays’ general manager.

Cash has taken accountability internally and externally, and a quick, essential diversion here: Yes, times have changed from the days when managers ran the games without input from their bosses. This is good. The more information utilized to make these choices, the better. As long as the manager can own and explain his actions to his players, it can work, and the Rays’ record and effort under Cash sure seems to indicate it works down at Tropicana Field.

Snell, who didn’t hide his understandable distress from that night — even as he reiterated his respect for Cash — is gone, having been traded to the Padres, as the eternally payroll-conscious Rays try to prolong their window of contention. Morton left for the Braves in free agency when he wanted to resolve his status early in the offseason as the Rays tried to determine their payroll flexibility.

To replace that formidable duo, the Rays imported a quartet of veteran arms: Chris Archer, Rich Hill, Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha. All have fared well so far, even Wacha after his disastrous 2020 with the Mets. Tampa Bay also will lean on youngsters like Luis Patino (one of four players coming over from San Diego in the Snell trade), Josh Fleming and Shane McClanahan. Their farm system, topped by shortstop Wander Franco, remains quite the “stable,” to use a Cash term from last season.

Did you see much of the Rays last season? They were a feisty, athletic group, hardly playing the sort of three-true-outcome baseball that critics attribute to a more analytical approach — the sort of ball Lindor would like, you’d think. They finished fourth in the AL with 48 stolen bases, just two behind the leading Mariners, and they also ranked among the league’s top defensive teams.

They took it to the Yankees, winning eight of 10 regular-season matchups, then ousting them in the AL Division Series when their undrafted free agent Mike Brosseau exacted vengeance against Aroldis Chapman’s September headhunting with an eighth-inning, tiebreaking homer in the deciding Game 5. Throw in the insane play that gave them a walk-off victory over the Dodgers in World Series Game 4, and the Rays possess plenty of memories defined by perseverance and triumph to fuel them.

Hurt, like all teams, by the coronavirus, the Rays cut their payroll from roughly $75 million (had there been a full 2020 campaign) to $60 million, a similar percentage to the Yankees going from $258 million to about $205 million. The Yankees have enjoyed a generally peaceful spring following an interesting winter, and the Blue Jays look ready to rumble after a winter just as aggressive as, if not more so than, Snell’s Padres, with George Springer and Andrelton Simmons topping the list of new arrivals. The Red Sox should be less of a pushover.

David will give it another go against Goliath, only this time some folks are peeved with David. Only a silly person would consider that as an obstacle to another odds-defying “takeover.”

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