Jake Odorizzi didn’t make it through the fifth inning against the Yankees on Saturday. That’s nothing new: He hasn’t gotten an out beyond the fifth inning in any of the five starts he’s made since his first turn.
In itself, that may not sound like such a big deal, considering that Odorizzi is a rookie, and the Rays -- smart about workloads as they are with everything else -- are keeping him under 100 pitches per start. But Odorizzi is part of a staff-wide problem because of the Rays’ injury-wracked rotation. With Alex Cobb expected to miss May, Jeremy Hellickson perhaps not due back until the end of June, and Matt Moore out for the year, the Rays don’t have the horses to work the innings you’d expect from a regular rotation. Odorizzi can’t get to the sixth, but neither can swingman Cesar Ramos or journeyman Erik Bedard, not with any reliability.
Which puts the onus on the bullpen to handle the middle-inning workload as well as protect leads in the late frames. The Rays’ bullpen is already averaging 3 2/3 IP every game. At their current clip they would throw 596 innings on the season. That’s more than any team’s relief crew threw in 2013; the Twins led with 579 1/3 last year. Only four clubs have ever had their bullpens throw as many as 596 frames: The Padres (596) and expansion Mariners (599 1/3) in 1977, the 2003 Rangers (601 1/3) and the 2012 Colorado Rockies (with an epic 657 relief innings). That quartet of clubs averaged 95 losses, with Buck Showalter’s Rangers being the best of the lot with 91. If you consider that the benefit of having a good skipper in charge of a bad situation, you can see the scale of Joe Maddon’s task.
Some of the guys put on the spot most regularly have been mop-up man Brandon Gomes and former closer Heath Bell, neither of whom you would have projected being key components for the Rays this season. Bell left four games of his 12 appearances with the Rays worse on the scoreboard than where he found them when he was brought in, the worst of which was his converting an ugly, short Bedard start from a 4-3 deficit after four into a 9-3 hole after six that the Rays couldn’t climb out of. Gomes absorbed his own loss Tuesday, coming in to pitch the sixth behind the quick-hooked Bedard.
This isn’t to heap blame on Bell or Gomes. They’re among the guys the Rays have to turn to in this all-hands-on-deck situation. On Saturday, it was Josh Lueke’s turn to try to get them through the sixth inning; he gave up the lead run on Kelly Johnson’s home run, then put an exclamation on that in the seventh with another pair of runs allowed.
Why was Lueke still out there? Because between Thursday’s doubleheader requiring a total 8 2/3 innings from the bullpen, and then Friday night’s extra-inning win demanding another seven innings of relief -- not even a seven-inning start from David Price spared the bullpen -- the Rays’ relievers are getting worked hard. So Odorizzi’s latest early exit just made matters worse, another game where only a natural disaster would spare the relievers another four-inning assignment. Bell gamely tried to tackle the eighth inning, but after throwing 2 1/3 innings in Friday’s win in extras, he was beyond gassed, and got lit up Saturday, putting another three-spot on the boards to turn a deficit into a decisive loss.
The Rays’ bullpen may not have to deal with this much work in a 72-hour stretch ever again. But the team is already handicapped by a rotation that can’t go deep into its starts, so the bullpen won’t be getting much relief from its workload in the months to come. That will create more opportunities for games like Saturday’s, in any Odorizzi start, or Ramos start, or Bedard start, games lost in the fifth or sixth innings because the Rays have to rely on their 11th-, 12th- or 13th-best pitcher in high-leverage situations.
Sunday addendum: The Rays have designated Bell for assignment, understandable given a 7.27 ERA. He's neither the first nor will he be the last reliever the Rays have to use up in their churn-and-burn hunt for bullpen help capable of filling the in-game gaps created by a rotation too frequently making short work of their own starts.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.