Saturday, November 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays turn to rookies Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek to turn up heat in bullpen

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ST. PETERSBURG — Evan Longoria has seen it plenty of times over the years from the batter's box, and the view has not been especially enjoyable.

"One of the things we always say is that when you're facing these other teams and they have three, four guys at the back end of the bullpen throwing 95-plus, there's something to be said for that. It's just not a very comfortable at-bat," Longoria said.

"And now we've got some guys down there (in the Rays' bullpen) that can definitely throw the ball hard."

Faced with injuries and inconsistent performances making their already beleaguered bullpen even more of season-ruining concern, the Rays made an uncharacteristic and risky decision a couple of weeks ago in calling up left-hander Jose Alvarado, just 21 and with only nine games of experience at even the Double-A level but armed with a blazing fastball.

Then last weekend they made another, perhaps not quite as bold, move, summoning Ryne Stanek from Triple A, 25 years old but with less than a season's experience since being moved to the bullpen, though also with high-velocity weaponry.

And they haven't been shy about using those two in higher-leverage situations in their ongoing — and frustrating — search to find a reliable way to get the ball to closer Alex Colome.

"There was kind of a need with injuries or whatever," manager Kevin Cash said. "There was a need."

Philosophically cautious in handling young pitchers, the Rays previously would at least try to break them in gently. But with few other options, in part from not doing more during the winter to boost the pen, the Rays went this way.

"Generally, I think that's probably the best way to go about it, to try and use some caution," Cash said. "But we got into a situation here 10 days, two weeks ago, where we were maybe scuffling a little bit and just figured, let's try these guys."

It was — and still is — a gamble on the Rays' part that the dynamic duo can handle the pressure, the spotlight, the higher level of competition.

But those big fastballs pushing triple digits coming from big bodies can help.

"When you've got powerful arms like that, you would assume the margin of error is a little greater," Cash said. "I know we've asked a lot of Jose Alvarado, and we're probably going to ask a lot of Ryne Stanek here these upcoming games."

So far, the two have done pretty well.

Since allowing three runs in his May debut, Alvarado has rolled off six straight scoreless appearances, impressing as much with how he has done it.

"He doesn't act like a 21-year-old," Cash said. "There's no panic. … You don't see a lot of guys come from Double A or be 21 years old and be able to home in on the strike zone like he's showing us he is capable of doing.

"That's kind of the irony; we didn't know. We knew he had the power. We knew he had a good breaking ball. We didn't know what the strike throwing was going to be. And he's really done a tremendous job of throwing a lot of them."

Alvarado, with help from team translator Wendi Tripp, said the key to taking the "incredibly huge step" has been remaining focused and that the experience of pitching two years of winter ball in his native Venezuela for La Guaira and then in the World Baseball Classic helped immensely.

"Every time I pitch, I go out there with a purpose," he said. "You still do what you know you've got to do."

The sample size is smaller with Stanek, but the results are encouraging, with two appearances in the eighth inning of close games, retiring two of the four batters he faced and hitting 100 mph on the stadium board in Cleveland.

"We're going to use him," Cash said. "I don't think we're in a position to sit there and coddle anybody when they come up. We need big outs, and if we think he's the best matchup, we'll go to him."

Stanek, who tuned up with Triple A pitching coach Kyle Snyder after an unimpressive spring, said he is ready for whatever opportunity he gets.

"I'm pretty happy with the changes they've made," Longoria said. "It' probably one of the first times I've felt like, at least in the recent past, we've actually shuffled it as much as we have and given some younger guys an opportunity to come up and kind of show what they can do."

So far, it has been a pretty good show. Just don't blink.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.

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