ST. LOUIS — Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger were out of the game Sunday when the red lights began flashing in the ninth inning. Grant Balfour was having trouble throwing strikes, and rookie Kirby Yates was quickly warming up in the bullpen.
Cesar Ramos was throwing, too, but he was only going to pitch if Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire sent lefty Chris Parmelee up to pinch-hit. Juan Carlos Oviedo would start throwing once Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon pulled Balfour in favor of Yates.
Joel Peralta was unavailable as he was the night before after contracting chikungunya, a virus contracted by a mosquito bite which causes high fever and joint pain. The symptoms can last up to a week.
That placed the two-run lead on the shoulders of Yates, who was pitching in his 13th big league game and second in the ninth inning during a save situation.
Maddon doesn’t hesitate to throw rookies into the fire, and Yates made it work Sunday when he retired the two batters he faced to close the door on the 5-3 win.
But for a moment, the Rays’ lack of high-leverage arms in the bullpen was exposed.
Is it possible this unit could be the soft underbelly of the Rays’ race for a playoff spot?
“We have to grow our bullpen,” Maddon said after the game. “We talk about making the lineup longer. We have to get the bullpen longer to permit people to not have to pitch so often.”
Maddon was talking about McGee and Boxberger.
McGee pitched in all three games against the Twins. He entered Saturday’s game to bail out Oviedo, who was trusted with a 5-0 ninth-inning lead but allowed one run and retired only one of the four batters he faced.
Not having Peralta hurt, though Peralta is no longer the sure thing he was when he first joined the Rays. The uneven performances by Balfour aren’t helping, either.
Oviedo has struggled lately, allowing runs in nine of his last 17 appearances.
Erik Bedard has made just one appearance since being moved from the rotation to the bullpen when Jeremy Hellickson rejoined the rotation July 8.
The Rays are carrying an extra position player for two reasons: The two off days this week means they only need four starting pitchers and because they could use the extra bat for pinch-hitting since pitchers hit during these two games against the Cardinals in the National League park.
The bullpen will return to its normal amount of seven arms at the end of the week when the Rays return home and Jeremy Hellickson rejoins the team.
The Rays could recall lefties Jeff Beliveau or C.J. Riefenhauser or righty Brandon Gomes to replace Bedard and give them another true reliever. One could be called up sooner if Peralta needs time on the disabled list to recover.
It helps when the starters work deep into games, leaving fewer outs for the bullpen to pick up.
It also helps that Boxberger can pitch for longer than one inning, which he did Friday when he covered four outs. Sunday was his ninth straight scoreless appearance.
Maddon said after Sunday’s win that Balfour is “just not right.” Balfour pitched a perfect inning Friday, but couldn’t get through the bottom of the order Sunday after Maddon used McGee against the middle of the Twins’ lineup in the eighth inning to create a less difficult ninth for Balfour. Maddon’s patience is running thin with Balfour.
That Yates faced the top of the order should help grow his confidence and the confidence Maddon has in him.
Yates has struck out 15 and walked only three in his 151⁄3 innings with the Rays. He had a 0.36 ERA in 25 innings at Durham earlier this season
“Look at his numbers in Triple A, you can’t get any better unless it was 0.00 (ERA), not much of a chance to be better than he had been,” Maddon said.
Yates has allowed two home runs this year, and Maddon said those were the result of poor pitch execution.
“But he’ll learn,” Maddon said.
He’ll have to, because it appears as if Yates will be counted on to contribute in the late-inning, high-leverage situations. As of now, Maddon has only two relievers he can depend on in that moment — McGee and Boxberger — and he knows he can’t abuse those two now or the Rays will have no shot at rallying for a postseason berth.
“I’ve talked about how we have to get participation from 25 players, including some guys who are still in Triple-A, if we’re going to pull this off,” Maddon said, “so that was the plan (in using Yates on Sunday).”